According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 2,500 individuals sentenced to life without parole in the United States for crimes they committed under the age of 18. “A sentence to die in prison is an expression of hopelessness and finality that is not fitting when the person who committed the crime is so young, so very capable of change,” said O’Shea Israel, a formally incarcerated young man. Jason Baldwin, who spent 18 years in prison, adds “it sounds so obvious to say that you aren’t the same person you were when you were a kid, but I saw people in prison who were punished forever as if they’d never be more than the worst thing they had done as a kid.”
Xavier McElrath-Bey from Chicago was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison when he was only 13 years old. “At such a young age, I didn't fully understand the ramifications of what had occurred; nor did I understand how so many lives – including my own – would be devastated because of my actions,” he said. “I did not think the victim would die and I was not the actual killer, so I never imagined that I would face a long prison term.”
Xavier eventually pleaded guilty in order to avoid a 40-year sentence. He served 13 years in prison, during which he earned a college degree, transformed into a different person, and dedicated his life to the victim in his case. “I am nothing like the person I used to be,” he said, now working as a Senior Advisor & National Advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
As a child, Xavier had experienced extreme poverty and frequently he and his siblings did not have enough food. He experienced violence at home and abuse from a foster parent. He sought family in a gang and fell in with the wrong crowd. Yet, Xavier’s case proves that young people can learn from their mistakes and be rehabilitated when given the opportunity.
It is expensive to incarcerate a child for life – costing approximately USD 2.5 million. This money could be far better spent on rehabilitation and this is what the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, based in the US, is dedicated to doing. The Campaign is the only organisation focused exclusively on ending the most extreme sentences for children. Founded in 2009 to ensure that the movement to end life without parole for youth was robust, coordinated and strategic, the Campaign now leads the movement and works to create a society that respects the dignity and human rights of children through a justice system that operates with consideration of the child’s age.
To this end, the Campaign has a multi-pronged approach that includes advocacy, communications, litigation and national coalition building. Since the Campaign’s founding, the number of US states banning life without parole for youth has more than tripled – from 5 to 17 states. With Xavier at the helm, the Campaign launched and coordinates a first-of-its-kind national network of formerly incarcerated youth convicted of murder or sentenced to life without parole who are now out of prison and doing well. Members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) speak at events across to country to spread the message that no child deserves to be sentenced to die in prison. The Campaign has been a partner with Oak Foundation since early 2016.
To find out more about the work of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth visit its website.