Comics Journalism: ‘Jessica Colotl: In the Eye of the Storm’

Jessica Colotl says her life is a series of hearings since the struggle began between her and federal and state authorities over whether she can stay in the country she’s called home since she was ten years old. Read the English version here and the Spanish version here. Colotl is young; she’s in limbo like many other immigrants, her story shifts from her college to a detention facility to a presidential announcement to a tenuous freedom. It’s a story that’s dramatic, tense, and now it’s presented in a way more accessible to young people. Furthermore, the story is reported through an innovative new form: illustrative or comics journalism.

After High Court Decisions, States Slowly Lightening Juvenile Sentences

As Supreme Court arguments from two key juvenile sentencing decisions trickle down through courts and legislatures nationwide, the heaviest sentences for juveniles may be on the verge of shedding some weight. “Graham and Miller put a constitutional ceiling on what states can do to kids,” argues Los Angeles attorney David Durchfort, continuing, “the big question now is what’s the safe zone? How far can they [states] go in punishing kids without giving them a second chance?”

Graham and Miller, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 and 2012 respectively, bar state laws that mandate life without parole sentences for juveniles. In both cases, the court said children are immature from a brain chemistry point of view. Therefore they are more corrigible and less culpable than adults and cannot rightfully be sentenced to life without parole until a judge takes that youthfulness into consideration.

New Study: Juveniles Miss Chances at Appeal

 A new collection of data in a report appearing in the University of Miami Law Review suggests that not only do juvenile defendants rarely appear in appeals courts, but that the lack of appeals means they are often treated less justly than adults. Fewer than one in 50 kids appeal delinquency sentences, suggests data from the 14 states that were able to compile something usable for Megan Annitto, director of the West Virginia University Center for Law and Public Service. Florida children appeal most often among her study states: 1.67 times per 100 cases on average from 2007 to 2010. The lowest appeal rate in the study was Utah, at less than one appeal per 2,000 cases. The average among the states is one out of 200.

Chicago’s Homicides Down in July But Worries Still Linger

By Natalie Krebs and Lorraine Ma

CHICAGO — It was rare news in a summer filled with frightening crime statistics, equally alarming headlines and a mayor and police superintendent on the defensive: For the month of July, killings in this city were down 11 percent from the same period last year, with the number of homicides for the month at 49. But such news matters little to people like Shirley Askew, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, whiling away days playing in the streets and city parks. And it means little when the overall homicide rate for the year is still up nearly 27 percent. Many children are scared; they’re kept indoors, and, in a very real sense, locked out of their childhoods. Now 59, with four sons and four grandsons, Askew indeed worries about the increasing neighborhood violence that threatens local children’s safety. Just Thursday afternoon, not far from where Askew spoke with reporters, two 16-year-old boys were gunned down and another wounded.

Ohio Facility Shares Youth Detention Award with Drawn-Down Utah Center

Just as the last residents are preparing to move out of Utah’s oldest youth detention center, the departing staff and their building near Salt Lake won an award for excellence in operations, beating out competitors from 17 other states. Weber Valley Detention Center was already scheduled to close due to budget cuts before it won the Performance-based Standards 2012 Barbara Allen-Hagen Award in July.  The award recognizes one youth detention center and one correctional facility annually for best implementation of the Performance-based Standard model for improving rehabilitation and quality of life for youth inside. The award “represents a lot of hard work on part of the employees there even though they knew it would close,” said Susan Burke, the state of Utah’s director of Juvenile Justice Services. The award comes from the PbS Learning Institute, a nonprofit offspring of the federal Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Experts Weigh in on Report Detailing High Number of LGBT Homeless

CHICAGO – After the Williams Institute, True Colors Fund and the Palette Fund released a critical study on LGBT youth homelessness last month, Chicago-based experts have weighed in and offered reaction to the study’s findings that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender and many agencies designed to meet their needs have failed to adequately address pressing concerns. The study, conducted between October 2011 and March 2012, was designed to assess how homeless youth organizations provide services to LGBT youth. (See related story)

About 380 respondents from 354 agencies that serve homeless youth participated in the web-based survey. Overall, the study found that the current network of homeless youth providers “is not adequately addressing the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth,” according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The survey showed about 30 percent of homeless using housing-related services—emergency shelters and transitional living programs—were LGBT.

Florida Struggles with Youth Life Sentences

Two years on, the ground-zero state in the fight over juvenile life without parole for crimes like armed robbery and rape has yet to settle what to do with such offenders. A case before the Florida Supreme Court may lay out sentencing guidance before the dragging state Legislature decides how to sentence for crimes that are now getting between four and 170 years. There are 115 inmates eligible for a resentencing under the May 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Florida, according to Ilona Vila, director of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Defense Resource Center at Barry University School of Law in Orlando. Florida has more Graham cases than in any other state. The Supreme Court opinion counted 129 nationwide, 77 of them in Florida.

Community-Based Intervention Programs May Be Beneficiaries of Youth PROMISE ACT

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hosted a congressional briefing on the 2011 documentary film “The Interrupters.”
Sponsored by the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, the briefing featured statements from Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and a panel discussion featuring Alex Kotlowitz, the producer of “The Interrupters” and author of the book “There Are No Children Here.”

“The Interrupters” focused on Chicago’s CeaseFire movement, a grassroots project in which members of communities seek to reduce acts of youth violence through localized, concentrated intervention programs.

CeaseFire employs “violence interrupters,” community members who work with youth in high-violence areas, to pinpoint and prevent potential crimes before they transpire. Two “violence interrupters,” Cobe Williams and Ameena Matthews, were present at the ACLU’S briefing in Washington, D.C.

The event drew the attention of a diverse group of attendees, including high school principals, public health officials, law professors and congressional staff. Congressman Scott hailed the Youth PROMISE Act — proposed legislation that would provide funding for comprehensive, community-based intervention programs, such as CeaseFire — as a potential means of curbing street gang activity and juvenile delinquency. The Youth PROMISE Act — officially titled the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education Act — would provide funding for evidence-based practices regarding the prevention of juvenile delinquency and gang activity. The bipartisan-sponsored bill would also amend the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 by creating a Youth PROMISE advisory panel to aid the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

In the Wake of High Court Ruling, A Reprieve for Juvenile Lifers?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision banning mandatory life without parole for juvenile criminals gave inmates like Christine Lockheart a glimmer of hope. In response to the Court’s ruling, the Iowa Court of Appeals earlier this month overturned Lockheart’s mandatory life sentence for a murder committed when she was 17 and ordered a judge to hold a new sentencing hearing. But less than a week later, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad commuted the sentences of all state prisoners serving mandatory life terms for crimes committed as juveniles, and instead gave them life with the possibility of parole after 60 years. Lockheart’s lawyer says he plans to challenge Branstad’s order in court, arguing that it violates the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. That ruling said that sentencing judges should consider the individual circumstances of crimes committed by juveniles, including “how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Lockheart’s case is among the first of what criminal justice experts say will be numerous and lengthy legal battles as courts and state legislatures across the country determine how to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling — and what to do with the estimated more than 2,000 prisoners currently serving mandatory life sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

Advocates Say Schools in Juvenile Detention Facilities are Failing Kids

CINCINNATI – Learning can be difficult under the best of circumstances. But for those young people inside the nation’s youth detention centers, the barriers to learning can be enormous indeed. This was just one of the messages that came out of a panel discussion at a conference in Cincinnati today sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund, the first such large-scale meeting of the child advocacy organization in a decade. The panel, Meeting the Educational Needs of Children in the Juvenile Justice System: Challenges and Opportunities, concentrated on highlighting problems and introducing ideas for reforming detention center school systems.

Panelists, including  David Sapp of  the American Civil Liberties Union, Lia Venchi, a teacher at a school for youth in detention and David Domenici, a member of the See Forever Foundation, said most of the reforms implemented in schools within juvenile justice facilities have been forced as a result of litigation or administrative complaints, making public attention the biggest force for change in what are usually highly secretive environments. The children who attend school in juvenile justice detention facilities have much higher needs than those in the general population, the panelists said.