The Juvenile Justice Initiative’s goal of giving all children in conflict with the law an equal chance was the theme for a gathering of over 120 people on October 8, 2014, at Jenner & Block. The event, called “Another Chance/An Equal Chance,” honored Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Jenner & Block partner Jeff Colman for their work championing the rights of children. It was also a fundraiser for the Evanston-based policy and advocacy organization.
Board Chair Gretchen McDowell explained the goals of the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI). “We work to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois to give children a chance at turning their lives around by keeping them out of incarceration. We also work to eliminate discrimination in the juvenile justice system and give all children an equal chance.”
In 1899 Chicago became home to the world’s first juvenile court. While initially created to be rehabilitative, over time the system has become increasingly punitive in its use of detention and incarceration, a trend JJI seeks to reverse. The two JJI Annual Leadership Award honorees were chosen for their work embodying these principles. Since she took office, Preckwinkle has been a strong advocate for closing the Cook County juvenile temporary detention center and working to ensure children are provided with appropriate services in their homes and communities. She also has been a strong voice for ending the incarceration of children and highlighting the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.
“During my first visit to the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, I was disturbed with what I saw. Detention is not a place for rehabilitation or treatment. No matter how many coats of paint or murals you put on the wall, it is still a jail, plain and simple. On that day, I made a promise to the youth at the [Center] that I would do everything in my power to make sure they never return,” Preckwinkle said during her remarks at the event.
Preckwinkle also called for the abolition of “automatically” trying children in adult court. “Every young person, regardless of the crime he or she is alleged to have committed, deserves a hearing before a judge to determine whether the charges against them should be heard in juvenile or adult court.” She also decried the racial disparities in the automatic transfers, noting a JJI report finding that only one white youth was among the 257 Cook County children transferred to adult court in a three-year study period.
Honoree Jeff Colman, a partner at Jenner & Block, has shown a commitment to juvenile justice by representing children in criminal and delinquency proceedings on a pro bono basis. Notably, Colman and his colleagues represented the first person in the country released from prison as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama. In Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatorily sentencing children to life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment.
Colman noted that “Miller is not about leniency; it is about fundamental fairness. The essence of the Miller opinion is that a mandatory life sentence—really, a mandatory sentence of a juvenile to death in prison—is wrong because it denies judges the power and ability to consider facts relating to a juvenile’s involvement in the offense and facts relating to a juvenile’s background and character.”
Both honorees gave impassioned speeches, urging reforms and defense of children caught in our prisons and our adult criminal courts. The importance of these reforms was highlighted by the moving account Xavier McElrath Bey shared of being a teenager in the adult criminal system. At the age of 15, Xavier was transferred to adult court and sentenced to 25 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 13. He said he is “living proof” of young people’s capacity for change. Since being released from prison after serving 13 years, he has obtained a masters degree and is dedicating his life to helping at-risk youth.
As mentioned in JJI’s recent newsletter, November is the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although drafted in large part by U.S. participants, the U.S. is one of only three countries that has not ratified the Convention (the other two countries are Somalia and South Sudan) and some U.S. practices fall outside of what is allowed under this international law, such as sentencing children to life in prison without parole.
“JJI strives to give children in Illinois the same rights children around the world receive under the protection of the Convention. But we can’t do this alone. We are proud to honor two leaders joining us in this struggle,” said Elizabeth Clarke, founder and president of JJI.
For more information about JJI, please visit the Juvenile Justice Initiative website, read the most recent newsletter and a report on automatic transfer. JJI also has a CLE program on various juvenile justice topics that includes webinars, classes, and pre-recorded online videos that can be watched at any time, and can also provide speakers for bar associations, law firms, schools or other interested groups on a variety of topics.