By John Lam
On a bright summer morning the men of Kid CAT eagerly welcomed two youth justice advocates from Washington, D.C., one of them a former youth offender who is now leading a coalition for juvenile justice reform.
Jody Kent-Lavy, executive director of Fair Sentencing for Youth, led the way into the stand-alone trailer where the meeting took place. Following her was a smiling man in a tailored suit, who didn’t look like someone who had served 13 years in prison for first-degree murder. Sentenced at the age of 13, Xavier McElrath-Bey is now a Youth Justice Advocate and the Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network (ICAN) coordinator.
This power pair has been traveling throughout the country for the past three years, advocating state representatives for juvenile justice reform, with the specific mission to overturn Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP). Their work and accomplishments can be seen in Vermont, Maryland, Utah, Idaho, Pennsylvania, California and Nevada.
Their organization also helped win three US Supreme Court decisions that have drastically scaled back JLWOP. One example is Montgomery v. Louisiana, in which the court ruled that any child sentenced to mandatory life in prison without parole is serving an unconstitutional sentence and is eligible for review.
During these national campaigns for reform, McElrath-Bey often shared his own personal story with audiences.
Born in a tough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, his early life was plagued by scenes of violence both inside and outside the home. At 6 he was removed from his home by Child Protective Services due to his father’s abuse. He was placed into foster care, where he was further victimized by his foster parents.
As this cycle continued to unfold over the next three years, young Xavier started hanging out with friends in the neighborhood, which morphed into gang involvement.
“[The gangs] became a wellspring of support and consolation and belonging. They gave me sense of purpose. A sense of love, and I was willing to do anything to preserve that very basic and fundamental human need. As result, I made very poor decisions that resulted in 19 arrests and seven convictions by the age of 13,” said McElrath-Bey
The last of these convictions came at the age of 13 when Xavier was sentenced to 25 years for participating in a fight in which his 28-year-old co-defendant killed a rival gang member.
“For the first five years of my incarceration, I was heavily involved with gang activities,” said McElrath-Bey. “I can tell you that my change was choppy. It wasn’t smooth, but my awakening came when I assaulted a C.O. during a riot.
“I was placed in the hole [solitary confinement] where I was 100 feet away from death row, I reflected on my life. I thought about my victim and a desire to live a normal life, like I saw on television.”
After a year in solitary, McElrath-Bey threw himself into education by taking advantage of Pell Grants, which resulted in two associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree in social science before being released from prison at the age of 26. He has since earned a master’s degree in human services.
“After I received my master’s degree from Roosevelt University, I was introduced to Cease-fire, an organization that seeks to combat violence in Chicago, doing gang intervention; afterward, I took a paid position with Northwestern University.
“At Northwestern University I got my big break, I was approached by Jody after an article I had published in The New York Times.”
“We reached out to him and had a couple of opportunities for him to attend several engagements,” said Kent-Lavy, “I asked him if it was beneficial to help organize a national network of formerly incarcerated youths. It went really well. A month or two later his job at Northwestern ended, and we recruited him to head ICAN.”
Kent-Lavy realized that people getting out of prison and living productive lives could help shift public opinion if they became advocates. This vision proved true in Nevada, where ICAN members played their role by sharing their personal stories with state legislators. The result was a unanimous vote to retroactively abolish JLWOP and to establish parole review for most youths in the adult system after 15 or 20 years.
“Coming to prison and visiting you all is inspiring, and motivating,” said Kent-Lavy, “and it gives a us a greater sense of urgency. There is momentum and the pendulum swinging in the right direction… I believe we are going to ban juvenile life without parole in the next five years,”
If you want to share your story or learn more about ICAN and The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, please write to:
1319 F St. NW
Washington, DC 20004
or go to www.fairsentencingofyouth.org