27 October, 2022
Promoting fair sentences for youth crime in the United States
Special Interest Programme / Partner story
Photo from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
In the United States, approximately 600 people are currently serving life without the possibility of parole, for crimes they committed when they were children.
But more and more states are rejecting this practice, in part due to the tireless efforts of advocacy organisations across the country. One such organisation is Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), based in Washington DC, which advocates for the ban on life without parole and other extreme sentences for children. It also explores alternative responses that ensure children are held accountable in age-appropriate ways, and creates opportunities for formerly incarcerated youth to thrive as adults and lead in their communities. CFSY believes that extreme sentencing for youth will only end when decision makers and those who influence them are convinced.
“I joined this organisation because I faced life without parole as a teen,” says Eric Alexander, senior advocate at CFSY. “The work is important to me to educate law makers and clear misconceptions about who these children are. The work provides opportunities to build pathways to roles in leadership for formerly incarcerated children.”
Xavier McElrath-Bey, now the co-executive director at the CSFY, was sentenced for 25 years as a 13‑year-old. “I was already deemed as incorrigible,” said Xavier. “I was already deemed as someone who had no hope for change. They saw me as a monster, unfortunately.”
In 2002, Xavier was released at age 26 after serving 13 years of his sentence. Backed by his bachelor’s degree, which he completed while in prison, Xavier went on to volunteer as a YMCA youth boxing coach, complete his master’s degree in counselling and human services, serve as an ambassador for Represent Justice, speak at influential events such as TedX, and win a host of awards, including the 2021 Bright Promises Foundation Champion for Children Award.
“People do change, people do grow, people do evolve into better human beings,” said Warren Hynson who spent more than 25 years in prison from the age of 17. While incarcerated, Hynson said he was a youth mentor, attended classes, and worked on his art, even having his pieces exhibited at a local college. “Don’t throw us in prison and throw away the key. Don’t throw us in prison and not give us any tools to grow.”
The number of states that ban life without parole for children has tripled in the last three years. As of November 2021, 25 US states have banned such sentences, with Maryland becoming the latest to do so in April 2021.
“It brings my heart joy to work directly with people in the community who were instrumental in the jurisprudence that provided me with the opportunity to prove that I am more than the worst thing I have ever done,” says Angel Alejandro, CFSY grants officer.
Meet the staff of CFSY in this video:
This grant falls under Oak Foundation’s Special Interest Programme, which covers a wide range of fields, including health, humanitarian relief, education, and the arts. You can visit SIP’s website here, and find more about the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth here.
 Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (n.d.) SENTENCING CHILDREN TO LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE: NATIONAL NUMBERS. Available at: https://cfsy.org/sentencing-children-to-life-without-parole-national-numbers/ (Accessed 17 September 2022)
 The Appeal (2021) Maryland Bans Sentencing Children to Life Without Parole. Avaialble at: https://theappeal.org/politicalreport/maryland-bans-sentencing-children-to-life-without-parole (Accessed 17 September 2022)
 Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (n.d.) Which states ban life without parole for children?. Available at: https://cfsy.org/states-that-ban-life-without-parole-lwop-sentences-for-children/ (Accessed 17 September 2022)
 Reuters (2021) U.S. Supreme Court spurns limits on life sentences for juveniles. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-supreme-court-rejects-new-curbs-juvenile-sentences-2021-04-22/ (Accessed 17 September 2022)