By Anna Smith
At age 11, Xavier McElrath-Bey joined a gang, feeling safer in the streets than in his own home. Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, he was surrounded by poverty, drugs and crime. In 1989, McElrath-Bey was sentenced to 25 years in adult prison for his involvement in a gang-related murder.
He was 13 years old.
Today, McElrath-Bey holds a bachelor’s degree in social science and is an advocate for ending extreme sentencing for children. He serves as a senior adviser to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and is a co-founder of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network.
Recently, he shared his story with a group of state legislators at the first meeting of the NCSL Juvenile Justice Principles Work Group. The 15 legislative leaders who make up the bipartisan group all have experience and expertise in juvenile justice policy work. “The goal of the group is to identify and invest in proven methods to put justice-involved youth back on the right track, while also keeping communities safe,” writes Anne Teigen, NCSL’s expert on juvenile justice, in this month’s State Legislatures magazine.
Much has changed since McElrath-Bey’s sentencing in the late 1980s. Policymakers now have access to better information on what causes juvenile crime and what can be done to curb it. For example, an Ohio study found that sentencing a young person to a lengthy out-of-home placement in secure detention does not reduce recidivism. In fact, another study, from Florida, reported that out-of-home placement for low-risk juveniles was associated with the highest recidivism rates.
At the work group meeting, members talked about solutions their states are using and developed 12 juvenile justice reform principles that are rooted in data analysis and the latest research. In West Virginia, for example, probation officers and social workers are authorized to work with schools, youth and families to address problem behaviors before they land young people in court.
To read McElrath-Bey’s story and learn how states are creating effective juvenile justice policies, read the full story here.
Anna Smith is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.