Thousands Like Me–The Supreme Courts Ruling on Juvenile Life Without Parole

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By Xavier McElrath-Bey

On January 25, the U.S. Supreme Court gave hope to thousands of individuals when they declared that Miller v Alabama is retroactively effective—meaning that life without parole for children can apply in only the rarest of cases. For the first time they found themselves facing similar odds as I once did.

Within moments, social media was flooded with hope, appreciation, thankfulness, and relief from families who had barely allowed themselves to dream of such a day.

The next night, my organization, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth held an impromptu conference call with many family members of young people serving to life without parole and other extreme sentences. Along with the hope and optimism came many unanswered questions: “How soon will my loved one be resentenced? Will she have a parole hearing?”

What we do know is that there is now hope, an opportunity for some to recognize their humanity, their ability to change and their potential to become someone positive in society.

We know that thousands of young people can imagine a second chance in life like the one I was given.

Twenty five years ago, at the age of 15, I was in a small holding area at the Cook County adult criminal court waiting for the outcome of a plea deal conference between my public defender, a state’s attorney and my judge.

Although I was 13 at the time of my arrest in a gang-related murder, my case had been transferred over to the adult criminal court. My codefendant, who was 14 at the time of the offence, had just received 40 years in prison for his involvement in the crime. He had one prior conviction; I had 19 arrest and 7 convictions in my juvenile arrest history. I was certain that I would receive more time than my codefendant.

I remember Mrs. Herschella Conyers, my public defender, coming back to my holding area in tears with an offer of 25 years—which, under the old law, meant that I would have a chance at freedom after serving half the time. The truth is, it hurt her to see me go to prison. But at least she knew I would be free someday; that I wouldn’t grow old in the system and remain void of the hope for freedom

Because I had an advocate in the courtroom, who both recognized that I was a child and believed in my capacity for positive change, I was given an opportunity to be held accountable for the harm I caused and also earn another chance at life.

As a result of that chance, I have matured, changed, and fully accepted responsibility for my actions. I spend each day working in memory of the victim in my case.

Today I am a national spokesperson and youth justice advocate with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. I travel the nation to speak with heads of national organization, legislators, judges, attorneys, juvenile justice practitioners, and other stakeholders in juvenile justice.

I am also the coordinator of a first of its kind national network of youth advocates who were formerly incarcerated as youth, the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN). ICAN is a racially diverse network of men and women from 16 states who were once deemed as the worst of the worst when they were sentenced for homicide related offences in their childhood. But today they stand as living examples of positive change, as strong youth advocates, and as the reason why we say to the world that “no child is born bad.”

Facing a Future

So far 2016 is off to a good start for those of us who care about youth justice. Not only do we have the Montgomery decision, but we also have President Obama’s order ending solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons, and the possibility that Congress may reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)—the main federal law that protects young people in state systems.

Our justices have reaffirmed that children are different and we have a duty as a society to treat them as such. It is a step in the right direction toward recognizing what recent science tells us: that children’s brains are not fully formed, and that there is great potential for children to grow in maturity and experience transformative remorse after making mistakes. All children have the capacity for positive change.

This ruling is a reminder that it is incumbent on all of us to protect the integrity of all children and to provide safe, loving, and nurturing environments where they can live, thrive, and become their best selves. We must never throw them away forever, even when they make horrible decisions and mistakes.

After all, no child is born bad. All children deserve a chance for positive change. For those charged as adults who stand deserving of another opportunity, there is hope.

Listen to powerful stories from young advocates part of ICAN as they speak before the Nevada legislature. 


Xavier McElrath-Bey is youth justice advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction.

The JJDPA, the nation’s landmark juvenile justice law, is up for reauthorization. As legislative changes are being made to bring this law up-to-date, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.


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