Ending the Extreme Sentencing of Youth with Xavier McElrath-Bey at CFSY
Checkr chats with Co-Executive Director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, Xavier McElrath-Bey.
Xavier McElrath-Bey is the Co-Executive Director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY). Xavier was incarcerated at 13 years old and has since transformed his life, working in roles to support gang intervention and violence prevention, researching mental health needs and outcomes around incarcerated youth, and advancing legislative advocacy against the extreme sentencing of youth.
As Co-Executive Director, Xavier’s work is focused on legislative advocacy, working in partnership with people in the community, particularly those who have lost loved ones to youth violence or extreme sentencing, as well as informing the public narrative about incarcerated youth.
We caught up with Xavier from his post in Chicago, Illinois to discuss:
- Xavier’s personal experience being incarcerated from the ages of 13 to 26
- Important sentencing policy and legislation in the US
- The business community’s role in reentry
Let’s jump in!
Hi Xavier! To start off, please tell me about your journey to becoming the Co-Executive Director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) and the work you’re doing there now.
Xavier McElrath-Bey: I came to the work in 2014 after many years working in gang intervention and violence prevention. Before joining the Campaign, I worked as a clinical researcher at Northwestern University for five and half years as part of a longitudinal study helping to assess the mental health needs and outcomes of formerly incarcerated youth.
I came into this space with a strong desire to elevate the stories of people who were just like me: who grew up in the system, who are recreating their lives and starting anew. That has been my passion up to this point.
That passion, along with professional development and professional growth, have manifested in being promoted to Co-Executive Director of the Campaign just over a year and a half ago.
The CFSY is a racial justice and equity organization, working exclusively to end the extreme sentencing of children in the U.S. We utilize a multi-prong approach that focuses upon legislative advocacy, coalition-building, public education, and strategic partnerships with the business sector to help advance the movement and support our directly impacted community members to thrive and lead.
“As a country, we still treat kids, in particular kids of color, as if they’re miniature adults. That’s where we focus our efforts at CFSY—to change punitive systems to be transformative, restorative, and healing for communities.”
Currently, we are very much immersed in our communications strategy, elevating stories and helping to ensure that the public narrative is informed by neuroscience, by the recognition of trauma in the lives of kids who commit harm and, most importantly, informed by the awareness of every child’s great capacity for positive change.
When people see the headlines, they see a crime report, they see a mugshot, or they hear of a horrendous offense or harm committed by someone—the knee-jerk reaction is to demonize or to say that those people are monsters. Sadly, during the 1990s, that was a hallmark of our criminal legal system; it simply ignored and denied the rights of children.
To this very day, we’re still trying to undo the remnants of that era that exist despite the emergence of adolescent brain development research. As a country, we still treat kids, in particular kids of color, as if they’re miniature adults. That’s where we focus our efforts at CFSY—to change punitive systems to be transformative, restorative, and healing for communities.
We work to help people understand that just as we were able to come out and change our lives, the same is true for those who are still inside. Those who are still suffering from outmoded and unscientific thinking about children. Children who are still languishing in prison for life without parole. They deserve the same justice that we were given.
That’s the heartbeat of our movement: to work for racial and social justice to ensure that no one’s left behind and that we stop our society from treating kids as if they’re monsters.
Could you characterize and help us understand what the experience is like for a young person going into a prison?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: I can tell you from my experience going into the system. By the time I was 13 years old, I had 19 arrests and seven convictions, which was really an extension of all the trauma I had experienced up to that point.
Having been through foster care, group homes, detention—I was always in the hands of a system that disregarded my youthfulness, my malleability and my capacity for positive change. Being faced with overly-punitive systems over and over again reinforced that trauma.
As a child, I didn’t have the ability to respond in a way that is possible with an evolved brain. I wasn’t able to respond as a reasonable adult. I was only able to respond to those experiences as a child who was impetuous, risk-taking and unfortunately, at that time, adapting to my environment which meant a lot more trouble. It just got worse, it was a cycle of bad behavior-punishment-bad behavior-punishment—and rarely was I ever met with incentives, positive regard, or support.
For me, it was only through maturity and growth—the ability to have moments of reflection as I got older in prison and became an adult— that I was able to realize where things went horribly wrong and begin to address that.
“I was a 17 year old kid who should have been graduating from high school. Instead, I graduated to the adult legal system where I regularly saw people being stabbed and where adults were willingly and excitedly exploiting, manipulating, and taking advantage of youth.”
Between the ages of 13 and 17, I was kept in the juvenile system. On my 17th birthday, I was awakened by the sound of shackles and sent to Cook County Court where a judge was to decide whether I stayed in the juvenile justice system or went into the adult system.
Unfortunately, the judge ultimately decided to put me in the adult system because I was getting into trouble in the juvenile system. Their impression of me was that I needed to be amongst adults who were considered high-risk and they sent me to a maximum security prison.
I was a 17 year old kid who should have been graduating from high school. Instead, I graduated to the adult legal system where I regularly saw people being stabbed and where adults were willingly and excitedly exploiting, manipulating, and taking advantage of youth.
That forced me to become more entrenched in my gang. I got into trouble there, had repeated stints in solitary confinement, and right before I turned 18, I assaulted a correctional officer during a gang riot. It wasn’t planned, it wasn’t something that I had hoped for or anticipated—it was a big melee; an uncontrollable, giant riot.
I was then placed in solitary confinement for a year. During that year, I was locked behind a door with a small chuck hole. I was released from my cell to take showers twice a week and for yard once or twice a week depending upon whether or not the prison was on lockdown.
I would describe that year as an existential nightmare. I felt extremely alone, isolated, and forgotten. I learned to live off sound alone. I couldn’t see outside my cell so whenever I heard the cart rolling I knew food was coming, whenever I heard the keys jingling I knew mail was being passed out—it was a way of survival that no kid should ever have to endure.
During those dark and lonely moments, moments for me of deep reflection, I decided I didn’t want to live this way anymore.
I could have arrived there without having to go through that, by the way. I didn’t need to spend a year in a hole to realize that I didn’t want to experience that. In fact, by then, I already had goals. I was taking college courses and knew I wanted to do something better with my life.
When I came out of solitary confinement a year later, I was committed to leaving the gang that I was a part of because of the necessary spiritual growth and survival inside that cell.
“I couldn’t see outside my cell so whenever I heard the cart rolling I knew food was coming, whenever I heard the keys jingling I knew mail was being passed out—it was a way of survival that no kid should ever have to endure.”
When you’re in a cell by yourself and you look in the mirror, you can’t escape the things that you’ve done, you have to face yourself every day. I remembered all the memories, the pain and suffering I had caused. I thought about Pedro, who was a victim of my case, and the life he could’ve lived. I could hardly feel sorry for myself. I knew I was paying a price for what I did as a child.
Still, there was also something inherently wrong that I felt was happening to me. I knew that despite what I had done as a kid and despite what I was doing in that moment to survive, that deep down, I wasn’t a bad person.
So, for me, I wrestled with that. To live in an environment that was antithetical to all that I had come to recognize about myself as a human being, as someone with care and compassion, I just knew that the life I was living was not representative of who I was inside. I wanted to somehow change that.
When I got out of the hole, I made the very scary decision to leave my gang. They could have killed me if they wanted to. However, an older gang member had compassion and allowed me to live my life behind bars as I pursued my education.
I earned an associate’s in arts, associate’s in general education, and a bachelor’s degree in social science. I had a 4.0 GPA, and I was inducted into the Franklin Honor Society for outstanding scholarship, all while in prison. I came out 13 years later at age 26 going on 27 and began discovering what it meant to live as an adult in society.
I didn’t have any clue of what that meant. I went in at 13 in seventh grade and came out at 26 with a bachelor’s degree. Mentally and spiritually, I knew for a fact that I was never going to go back. I simply wanted to live a normal life. And I’ve been out now for 20 years.
How has your life evolved over the last 20 years?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: In that time, my life has evolved greatly. I went on to get a master’s degree, I’ve worked in the fields that I shared with you earlier, and I have a 10 year old child who inspires me to want to continue in this work. Because I know this world is not a friendly or loving place at times, particularly for black and brown kids.
If anything, I want my legacy to be one that allows kids to grow, mature, and thrive. To yes, make mistakes, be held accountable, but ensure that they’re not thrown away forever, which has happened to many people. For me, that’s what drives my work.
Being in an adult prison as a child, it was scary and unpredictable, at times. For kids, it’s very detrimental to their safety and well-being because, sadly, they are the most vulnerable in the prison system.
I saw many kids who were exploited. Kids in the system were sexually abused, extorted, and treated in ways that no one would want their child to be treated—but no one talks about that. I think it’s important for people to recognize that whenever a child goes into an environment like that, they become the prey.
If there is someone in there with ill-intent, someone who has no regard for humanity or the well-being of others, oftentimes it’s that child, the most vulnerable in that environment, who becomes the target. Unfortunately, that is something a lot of kids are faced with. They’re afforded with two options: either meet the environment with aggression and, therefore, face consequences from the prison administration, or with submission, and, therefore, risk exposure to a thousand and one intrusions upon your life.
Those two options in life should never be afforded and hope should never be taken away for a child.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s hard to fathom the experience of a 13 year old in the system. Hearing a first-hand account helps us understand the impact and realities.
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Thank you, and I believe that’s where the true impact lies. It’s one thing to hear about rising crime rates, but it’s an entirely different thing to hear from someone who went through it and understand the nuances of their lives and the challenges they face, and how, if you were in their shoes, that perhaps you may have made similar decisions.
Could you walk me through a few of the programs that CFSY runs and the resources that you provide for formerly incarcerated youth?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Let’s talk about the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), which is an action network launched in 2014. Early on, we had seven original founding members. Today, we have almost 200 members across 32 states.
As you can imagine, folks who are inside the prison system, they’re hearing from the CFSY, we’re working with their families, they’re getting mail from us and being informed about the progress on legislation and reform in their state.
Often, their hope is hanging on it. They’re realizing that there’s an organization that actually cares. An organization that shares their same narrative and that’s come to pull them out of this dark hole, a dark hole that has been largely ignored by the vast majority of society for decades. For incarcerated youth, they’re thinking, “I’ve had to grow up here, and now finally here’s my hope and chance.”
Once we advance and pass a bill in a state, the work doesn’t stop there. We continue to work with families, their attorneys, parole boards and others to help shepherd the process of reentry. We provide a parole board toolkit, pro bono legal assistance through our partners, and many different resources to help individuals and their families navigate the system so when an individual is met with the opportunity for review, they’ll be prepared.
“Imagine the caliber of person who grew up in prison, who committed some serious offenses, but demonstrated such positivity in their lives that even those bars and those chains and those walls couldn’t block their pursuit of change.”
The opportunity to be heard before a parole board and then to be given a second chance is a beautiful and amazing thing. However, at that point, we have to be focused on the additional challenges the person will be faced with. We’ve come to learn through this work that as exciting as it is—unless you have support and you have loved ones waiting at the gate, it’s going to be challenging.
For example, in my experience, when I came out of prison, I went to a homeless shelter.
That could have brought about a lot of hopelessness and some people do break to that. But, imagine the caliber of person who grew up in prison, who committed some serious offenses, but demonstrated such positivity in their lives that even those bars and those chains and those walls couldn’t block their pursuit of change. And by being met with a board who saw them and granted them that freedom, you have to be a resilient and strong person to survive that.
Coming out of prison yes, is challenging, but those who survive a life in prison sentence and still remain hopeful—they’re able to step out, smell the fresh air, walk the city streets, visit places they once were as children, reconnect with family members and friends—that’s all the more motivation to never go back.
Once people are home, our work begins to support their long-term health and prosperity. Through our diverse partnerships we provide all kinds of direct support and assistance, and importantly, work to change the systems people are coming home to. Last year we launched our fair chance hire initiative, Hire ICAN!, which connects employers to members of ICAN who are job searching. So, we’re helping provide opportunities for ICAN members and helping employers fill their talent needs.
We also try to meet them with programs that most importantly focus on their self-care and the healing in their life that our system simply doesn’t provide. It doesn’t provide space for individuals like these to share their past, to talk about the shame, the guilt, the hope, or what it means to rediscover life after periods of incarceration.
Oftentimes, they’re living quietly tucked away in society wrestling with these realities on their own. Feeling like they’re on an island even though they’re free, wrestling with responding to things in ways that were ingrained in them over the years of being in a space that didn’t allow them to be their authentic selves. It’s like a homecoming when they join ICAN and become part of a community of people just like them—it’s an unfamiliar experience to be a part of a community who understands how it feels.
Not only are ICAN members just like them, but they are people who hold positions of leadership and who have the great responsibility to ensure that they succeed.
For us to have companies like Checkr, Verizon, Starbucks, Uber and other corporations pour into this community—whether it’s through tech literacy programs or through strategic partnerships that allow our community members to learn how to fill out an application and apply for a job—all of these things are important because the population we serve, they’ve been on their own in this world that, while the public narrative is shifting, it’s still going to present them with challenges as they recreate their lives.
“No matter how long you’ve been out, no matter the level of support you have in your life, oftentimes, what’s most important is the matter of being seen.”
And we can provide direct assistance grants which means, if you come out of prison, and you have nowhere to stay, we’re going to try to help you secure a living space, ensure that you have a roof over your head. If that means paying a management company to give you a studio apartment, then we’ll do that.
Just recently, for example, one of our members had to move back to his home state because his mother was injured and he was the primary caretaker before he left to start his life somewhere else. He went back home and had to find work. He knew he was good with his hands, so he decided to do construction work. But he didn’t have any tools. He began working at job sites doing manual labor, but he wasn’t showing up in a way that he felt was representative of his skills. To do that, he needed tools.
I remember we gave him a direct assistance grant, he went and bought those tools, he was promoted at his job and now he’s thriving and able to take care of his mother.
That’s one example of how we try to support the lives of our ICAN members, recognizing that no matter how long you’ve been out, no matter the level of support you have in your life, oftentimes, what’s most important is the matter of being seen.
We see our ICAN members and we’re willing to support them throughout their lives. Consequently, they’ve been able to find success. ICAN members and other formerly incarcerated children have much lower than average recidivism rates, and I credit that to this populations’ resilience. A recent study that looked at the recidivism rate of formerly life sentenced children in Pennsylvania conveyed that only 1.14% of them return. And those who do return, it’s because of minor infractions, not having committed a serious violent offense but rather for a parole violation or something along those lines.
Being a part of this community and being able to support them, while at the same time, accessing their own staunch advocacy at the forefront of the movement and their unique insights leading and helping us evolve, has been particularly amazing. And, I’m one of them! That is the beauty of the work. Not only am I a co-executive director, but I’m also a proud founding member of ICAN. Having that shared experience makes me excited to see how our organization will grow.
Let’s talk about sentencing and reentry policy for young people. Could you talk me through a policy reform that’s on the forefront of your mind right now?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: When I came on board in 2014, there were around five or six states that had banned or had no young people serving life in prison without parole, so we were at a very early stage in the movement to end extreme sentencing of youth.
What’s interesting is at that time—not many people who had experienced being sentenced to life in prison as kids were out yet. As we’ve grown and reforms have been passed, that has changed. We continue working in this space and helping to lead the movement in a meaningful way.
Fast forward to years later, we’re now at 32 states and the District of Columbia, that have either banned or have no one serving a juvenile life without parole sentence.
There’s been great momentum due to the US Supreme Court decisions that began with Roper v. Simmons, which banned the death penalty for a crime committed by a child under the age of 18, Graham v. Florida which banned life without parole for non-homicide related offenses for all juveniles, and soon after Miller v. Alabama which banned mandatory sentencing of life in prison without the possibility of parole for children with homicide offenses.
Slowly, we started to see the courts and our justice system recognizing that not only are these sentences extreme, but they are completely contradictory to what we know from neuroscience and data from brain development research.
Morally, we recognize that kids are different. In turn, there are legal, moral, and scientific explanations for why we should treat kids differently. As a society, we have evolved the standard of decency. We’ve gone from mandatory sentences of life without parole to a point where states have said enough is enough, we need to give these kids a chance. Where you do provide an opportunity for review; to open those prison gates, look inside, and see who these children have become.
That’s really all we’re asking. We’re not saying we want “get out of jail free cards” for everyone. No, we’re simply saying that kids change. We need to be able to look beyond those walls to see who they have become years later.
It doesn’t take decades for someone to change, but in some states, reforms are particularly challenging. More recently, the states of Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to end life without parole for kids and provide opportunities for release. But it doesn’t stop there. Implementation is also important.
Again, we work with parole boards, families, and others to ensure that folks are given these meaningful opportunities that we fought so hard for, as well as support them through reentry.
“Morally, we recognize that kids are different. In turn, there are legal, moral, and scientific explanations for why we should treat kids differently.”
Currently, we have legislation moving forward in Michigan. Just this past month in Michigan, Senator Irwin introduced bill SB 848 that would provide a parole review after 10 years. It’s particularly challenging in Michigan because there have been some recent high-profile cases in that state, not to mention some challenging ones that happened in the past.
We are constantly having to help address the narrative and help the Michigan legislature understand that kids change and push for the meaningful reviews that will be afforded to some of these individuals.
There is hope—we do have bipartisan support, we have family members, advocates, and people stepping up and saying, let’s give them a chance. Our message to the Michigan legislature is that you’re an outlier state with regards to how kids are being treated.
Some of your neighbors have passed legislation to end extreme sentencing, so we’re hoping to secure a win there. Sadly, Michigan is currently the life without parole for children capital of the world. It was once Pennsylvania, but that changed thanks to a wonderful and progressive prosecutor there named Larry Krasner who has ensured that people have opportunities to resentencing and most importantly, second chances. Hundreds of people have been released in Pennsylvania, leaving Michigan as the dominant state, so we’re hoping to see legislation passed there soon. That’s where we are going to focus the boots on the ground.
“It’s one thing to have a second chance in the courts at a parole hearing, but it’s another thing to be able to come out and truly have a meaningful opportunity to recreate your life.”
We have some ICAN members out there in Michigan, so I want you to imagine a state where you’ve had mixed outcomes. Resentencings were mandated by Montgomery v. Louisiana, so that is happening in Michigan. However, if you have a state that hasn’t banned the practice of extreme sentencing altogether, that means when you come up for your resentencing hearing decades later, that decision depends entirely on the court, the district, and sadly, disproportionally, your race. Resentencing hearings have shown that it is the black juvenile lifers who are experiencing resentencing to life without parole again at disproportionately higher rates than others.
It’s clear to us that there’s a lot to be undone there, but we’re hopeful that the mere example of the many leaders who were once in those kids’ shoes, can show legislators that individuals can and do change. Despite what someone may have done as a child, no matter how horrendous, if we look within those bars we might be surprised. In fact, I’m fairly certain that they would be surprised, and that’s where our hope lies.
What message do you have for employers who are just learning about fair chance hiring? In other words, what advice do you have for them to better support these young people?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: It’s one thing to have a second chance in the courts at a parole hearing, but it’s another thing to be able to come out and truly have a meaningful opportunity to recreate your life.
No matter the level of love or the level of support you have, no matter how determined you are to live a normal life, there are some things that are not within our control.
I experienced that firsthand when I came out of prison with a bachelor’s degree. I want you to understand—I was literally walking around with a physical paper depicting my degree in my hands, that’s how determined I was. I cannot count the number of people, companies, and organizations that turned me away.
It was often a blanket decision. There were times that the person who was interviewing me was so deeply apologetic that they had to do that.
The existing policies at these companies did not allow for genuine human proximity. They didn’t allow for a genuine individualized determination of who someone really is, the potential that they have, and the value that they bring.
If we’re talking about people who, through their behavior and their positive change, we’re able to convince a parole board that despite what they did as kids, they deserve a chance at a normal life, and succeed—that’s the kind of resilient, strong, and determined person you want at your company.
Hear me now, parole boards are not particularly driven in many instances to afford someone a chance for freedom, especially if they’ve committed some serious harm.
So simply by virtue of the fact that they are able to overcome that and to demonstrate that positivity—for me, that’s a one-way ticket to any job.
In my mind, you’ve demonstrated above and beyond that number one: you are not a threat to society, and number two: you have such great potential to accomplish anything that you set out to do if you have support.
The individuals who come out of prison after serving decades and despite that, remain hopeful and litigate their own cases, I assure you—they will be transformative in your space.
That’s the value I want corporations to recognize. That these individuals are not only people who deserve a second chance, but these are people who also can bring great value to your space if you simply afford fair chance hiring.
“Resentencing hearings have shown that it is the black juvenile lifers who are experiencing resentencing to life without parole again at disproportionately higher rates than others.”
I’ve experienced organizations that were completely thrilled whenever an ICAN member was hired, so much so that those ICAN members became the voice for fair chance hiring and helped shift the culture of the entity.
We often think as corporations only about their profit, determining if something is going to be beneficial in terms of the bottom line, the brand, and productivity. I want those corporations to know that there is an untapped asset just waiting for an opportunity. That’s why we launched Hire ICAN!, so corporations and other employers can meet fair chance talent directly, and have the support of the CFSY in all stages of fair chance hiring.
That’s a great point, resilience is a critical skill in the workplace.
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Not to mention adaptability. We’re talking about someone who has demonstrated the ability to enter into a space that is foreign to them, and yet carve out a sense of identity and ownership.
My first job was as a barista at Starbucks, and to this very day, I always say: once a barista, always a barista.
Once a partner, always a partner. I love Starbucks. And that’s to show how loyal we are, because that first opportunity was literally a life vest, a saving grace, and we don’t forget that.
If you want to demonstrate corporate social responsibility and you want people to share what it means to be in your space and to show up meaningfully in the world, if you give someone a chance, I can assure you the appreciation, the commitment, and the love they carry in their hearts for that first chance, will be transformative to the work.
How can someone get involved with CFSY?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: The most important way is to help raise awareness. Follow us on social media, join our listservs, and help us by sharing the stories.
If you want to join the movement, I encourage you to use the skills that you have and think of creative and innovative ways to amplify the stories and the message of the mission. If you are in a position to help make a difference, tap into your own gifts and talents to help elevate this movement in a meaningful way; and, of course, a donation to support our community members could go a very long way.
We’ve had organizations and companies that have been particularly innovative and creative in partnering with us. For example, there was someone from Deloitte who asked us how the company could be a meaningful resource to ICAN members. In turn, they hosted a training day where our members learned things like how to tie a tie, how to go through the interview process, how to build strong credit, the importance of and how to set up a bank account, and what companies look for when you apply for a loan.
There are ICAN members who can greatly benefit from similar life skills training. Growing up in the prison system, some ICAN members missed out on decades of technological advances and the opportunities to learn what we often take for granted. For example, some of our members never learned how to create and send an email, use a cellphone, or surf the internet. Unfortunately, this is the reality for a lot of folks who served decades in prison and began their sentences prior to the world wide web becoming a public domain.
Verizon helped us address some of those needs by co-creating a customized tech literacy project with our ICAN members, and, this month, we will be collaborating with Checkr and Orlando Workforce Partners in providing ICAN members an information-sharing session that will dispell myths regarding jobs in the tech sector and educated them on how to apply for those positions and be competitive. These are just two examples of the ways to get involved.
Any educational, vocational, or professional opportunities will be meaningful for our population.
“The individuals who come out of prison after serving decades and despite that, remain hopeful and litigate their own cases, I assure you—they will be transformative in your space.”
The proximity and relationships provide a two-way street. Many of our professional coaches, trainers, and supporters have expressed great personal growth and appreciation for the transformative experiences of meeting ICAN members. As you can imagine of people who have overcome the unthinkable, this population’s resilience, compassion, and ability to learn and adapt are unparalleled.
Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of figuring out what they want to do with their life and being met with opportunities.
I appreciate you sharing your story and these illuminating insights. Thank you so much.
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Thank you so much, thank you.
You can find more information on Xavier McElrath-Bey here. Learn more about the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth on their website here, and be sure to check out their pages on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Watch Xavier’s session and all other TEDxSanQuentin sessions here, or by clicking below.
They Never Saw Me as a Child
In this heart-wrenching narrative, hear about the deeply traumatic experiences that were exacerbated by Xavier’s involvement with the justice system and how we continue to fail the most vulnerable children in our society.