When a youth is placed into the adult justice system, they are taken from their community, their friends, and most importantly, their families. Families often feel helpless, as though the system has taken their kid permanently, unfairly, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
In their own words, families tell what it’s like to have a child in the adult justice system.
› Tracy McClard
› Diana Gonzalez
› Georgia Mae Williamson
› Ms. Catreeda R. Lloyd
› Grace Bauer
› Vicky Gunderson
Tracy McClard [return to top]
Good Morning, Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Kline, and members of the House Education and Labor Committee. Thank you for having me here to testify today on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and share my story.
My name is Tracy McClard and I live in Jackson, MO. In 2008, I lost my barely 17 year old son, Jonathan, in Missouri’s criminal justice system.
Background and Context:
Before I begin telling my family’s experience with having our son in the adult criminal justice system, I would like to give you some data to help put our story into context. Each year, an estimated 200,000 youth go into the adult criminal court and every day 10,000 kids under the age of 18 are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons.
These policies exist even though research shows that prosecuting children as adults causes harm to these youth and does not increase public safety. Reports from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s non-federal Task Force on Community Preventive Services, show that prosecuting youth as adults actually increases crime. The CDC report found that youth involved in the adult system are 34% more likely to commit crimes than children who have done similar crimes, but remain in the juvenile justice system. The OJJDP report found that prosecuting youth as adults increases the chances of a youth re-offending and recommended decreasing the number of youth in the adult criminal justice system.
Research also shows that youth in adult jails face unbelievable conditions. First, these youth are at great risk of physical and sexual assault. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission recently found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse” and said youth be housed separately from adults. Second, youth in jails typically do not have access to things like education, mental health programs, or substance abuse treatment, especially when compared to kids in juvenile facilities. Finally, and as my family tragically knows too well, youth in adult jails are at a high risk of suicide - youth in adult jails are 36 times more likely to complete suicide in an adult jail than youth juvenile detention facilities.
In July 2007, my son Jonathan, who was 16 years old at the time, made an extremely poor error in judgment. That morning Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend called to tell him that she was pregnant with Jonathan’s baby, but that her new boyfriend was abusive and was going to force her to inject cocaine and kill the baby. She also told him she was going to commit suicide before the new boyfriend could do this. Under the influence of drugs, and in what he thought was an attempt to save two lives, Jonathan shot the boyfriend, who survived, with the intent to scare him into leaving the ex-girlfriend alone. Thinking the police would understand why he did what he did and not understanding the gravity of his actions, Jonathan immediately turned himself in. While I believed that Jonathan needed to be held accountable for his actions as well as pay retribution, I never would have imagined the conditions he would face in the adult criminal justice system that ultimately took his life.
Our ordeal began with Jonathan being taken to an adolescent psychiatric hospital in St. Louis, MO within two hours of his arrest due to shock and suicidal thoughts in the aftermath of the event. The charge nurse there said that Jonathan was very confused and afraid. He remained in that facility for two weeks and was then ultimately transferred to the Cape Girardeau Juvenile Detention Center to be closer to home.
While in the psychiatric hospital, Jonathan was prescribed an extremely high amount of anti-psychotic medication. When he was transferred back to the juvenile facilities we, as his parents, had no control over Jonathan’s medication or the dosage. It took several weeks for his body to adjust and during this time he had recurring nightmares about the loss of his baby and hallucinations of blood running down the walls. Eventually his body adjusted to the medication. In the juvenile detention center, Jonathan was allowed to complete homework from school and stay caught up. Jonathan remained in the Cape Girardeau County Juvenile Detention Center until September 6, 2007.
On that day, Jonathan had a certification hearing where he was transferred to the adult system. At the conclusion of the hearing he was immediately placed in the Cape Girardeau County Jail with adults in Jackson, MO. He was a 140 lb., slight built, 16 year old child among much older, bigger men. As soon as he arrived, all the medication he was forced to take earlier was abruptly stopped due to the jail’s anti-narcotics policies, causing intense withdrawal symptoms, including shaking, another bout of hallucinations and severe depression. There was no medical care, medication or concern on the part of the jail’s staff as Jonathan was forced to suffer these withdrawal symptoms.
At the jail, the ability for Jonathan to continue his education was also put on hold. Because he was now in the adult system, his school was no longer required to send homework and he was officially dropped from their roster. This was really difficult for Jonathan to deal with as he loved school, learning, reading and research. He had a lot of friends, made good grades and his teachers really enjoyed having him in class. He was working toward scholarships and had plans to become a doctor or psychiatrist. In the weeks waiting for his certification hearing, he mentioned several times how worried he was about his education. The night before the hearing he said, “I wonder if my teachers know I have to go to jail tomorrow and I can’t be in school anymore. My life is over.”
In order to continue with his education, Jonathan tried to work on a GED book, but he told me that it was too noisy in the jail and nobody was there to help or support him. He ended up staring at the TV every day and at night he could not sleep as the lights were kept on and the adult inmates stayed up. He waited to use the restroom and take a shower in the mid-morning hours when the other inmates were sleeping to avoid being assaulted. Jonathan spent approximately two weeks in the Cape Girardeau County Jail and due to a change in venue was then transferred to the Mississippi County Jail in Charleston, MO.
I knew the transfer was coming, I just didn’t know when. Due to security protocol, families are not allowed to know when loved ones are being moved. Before Jonathan was transferred, I called the Mississippi County Jail to speak to the supervisor about his safety. The supervisor led me to believe he was very concerned about having someone so young in his jail, that he would be very careful about which pod he chose to place Jonathan, and that other inmates had been singled out to watch over him. I was told that the officers would keep an eye out for him and he would be fine.
Jonathan was transferred on a Thursday. We were allowed only one 15 minute visit a week, either on Monday or Thursday between one and four o’clock. My husband and I took time away from our jobs each week to visit. We visited through glass by talking on a phone. Since Jonathan was moved on Thursday, the following Monday was our first opportunity to see him.
As Jonathan approached his side of the glass, my husband and I were shocked by what we saw. Jonathan had cuts and bruises all over his face, ears, and head. His hair was shaved off and he had a tattoo under his eye. He was told by the other inmates in the facility he needed the tattoo to survive. I immediately broke down and wept because I was utterly powerless to keep him safe. As I questioned him about what happened, I learned that he was attacked the night he arrived there. He said there was a meth lab in the jail and the person who attacked him was someone he shared a cell with and who was coming down off of meth. This person took Jonathan’s shirt and pulled it over his head so he couldn’t see and so his arms were trapped. Jonathan kept trying to reassure me that he would be okay and this was his fault because he’d gotten himself into this nightmare. We both knew he wouldn’t be okay.
Following the extremely short visit, Jonathan was led back into the madhouse and my husband and I sought out the supervisor that I had spoken with on the phone. When we asked about the events of the fight and Jonathan’s promised safety a very unconcerned supervisor told us, “Things like this happen! What do you expect? We don’t tolerate fighting of any sort so if Jonathan participates in it again he’ll be placed in solitary confinement. I don’t care what the circumstances are.”
On our next visit a week later, Jonathan was visibly shaken. He said, “Mom this place is so scary.” I asked what happened. He described an incident that happened that week of a new inmate coming in. He said when this man was brought in several inmates grabbed him and dragged him to the back. He said, “Mom, I could hear him screaming and screaming and nobody did anything! When they brought him back out I couldn’t recognize him because he was so bloody and beat up and he got sent to solitary, but nobody else got into trouble.”
For the next several visits, Jonathan always had stories to tell about violent things that happened that week and comments he was hearing from inmates who had been to prison about how to survive if he had to go to prison. He was constantly trying to strengthen his body to survive present and future attacks. He talked about how he was told he needed to be in a gang, which he didn’t want to join, to survive. At this point, he was trying to decide between making education a priority and dealing with the bullying and beating that came with studying for the GED or if he should forget his education so he could join a gang and be safer. Jonathan remained in the Mississippi County Jail until his sentencing hearing on November 13, 2007.
Missouri has a blended sentencing option in place called the Missouri Dual Jurisdiction Program, which is run by the Missouri Department of Youth Services (DYS) and serves youth up to age 21 who have been certified as adults. Youth sentenced to this program are placed in a secure facility near St. Louis and are allowed to live in dorm style rooms, wear their own clothes, and have their own possessions from home. They also receive their high school diploma or GED, can take college classes, and have extensive individual and group counseling geared toward substance abuse, positive choices, victim empathy and restoration and other issues geared toward this specific population. Families are also encouraged to visit and remain involved. To be allowed into this program, a youth is interviewed by the DYS and a recommendation is given to the judge for acceptance or rejection. If accepted, the adult sentence is suspended while the youth receives intensive counseling and education. At the age of 21, another hearing is scheduled to decide if the youth can go home on probation or if the youth must serve the rest of the sentence in the adult prison. The decision for initial placement and adult placement is ultimately up to the judge.
Jonathan was interviewed for this program and was highly recommended. A representative from the DYS came to his sentencing hearing (which is unusual) to testify about the huge possibility for success Jonathan possessed. Namely, Jonathan had a close, supportive, extended family, was a good student in school, was well liked by peers, grew up in church and was involved in the youth group, and had goals and plans for his future. Although the DYS person who interviewed Jonathan thought Jonathan would be a good candidate for the program, the DYS worker also said that the judges in our court district typically were difficult to work with and wished Jonathan’s case was in a different district. Tragically, the judge in Jonathan’s case refused to listen to this recommendation.
Jonathan left the jail two days later and was placed in several other facilities. On December 13th, Jonathan took his GED test and passed with a 99th percentile in the nation. On January 4th, three days after his 17th birthday he was found hanging in his cell. A few days before, he had learned that he would be going back to Mississippi County to the prison in Charleston, which was the same town where he had lived and witnessed horrible experiences while in the jail.
While in jail, Jonathan lost everything. He lost his freedom, his friends, his safety, his privacy, his sanity, his childhood, skateboarding, swimming, his girlfriend, summer vacation, scholarships, college, dreams, Six Flags, marriages, births, deaths, family vacations, Christmas, Thanksgiving, time with his brother and sister (who now have tattoos in his honor and named their children after him), time with a close extended family and cousins who have always been a huge part of his life, his whole entire future and his life.
Our family also suffered while Jonathan suffered and we nearly lost everything as well. Jonathan’s older brother, Charles, had recently moved out on his own, but began experiencing panic attacks and seizures due to extreme stress and worry over Jonathan and was forced to move back home. Shortly after Jonathan died, Charles attempted suicide. A few weeks before Jonathan’s death, my husband also attempted suicide and was hospitalized. Jonathan’s older sister, Suzanne, who is in the Army National Guard, was scheduled to deploy a few days after Jonathan’s death and also ended up in the hospital suffering from panic attacks.
Recommendations and Conclusion:
Jonathan’s experience taught me that no child should be placed with adults no matter what, because when children are put in with adults they die - physically or mentally. I also believe that all kids deserve a second chance. As a parent, one of the most frustrating things for me was that the court, the judges, and the prosecutors didn’t know my son - they hadn’t raised him like I had; they didn’t even know him as a person - but they weren’t willing to give him the second chance they might have given to their own kids if they were in the same situation. Finally, if the goal of the juvenile and criminal justice system is to keep our communities safe, how safe can our communities be if a kid in Jonathan’s position would have spent five, ten, fifteen or more years in the conditions Jonathan faced and with the role models he had?
In terms of JJDPA reauthorization, I have two main recommendations for the Committee. First, the current JJDPA law has two core requirements - jail removal and sight and sound separation - that recognize the dangers of keeping youth out of adult jails and out of contact with adults in these facilities. However, right now these two requirements only apply to youth who are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. Once a youth is charged as an adult, these protections no longer apply and, like Jonathan, kids can be placed in the same cell as adults. I hope the Committee can extend the jail removal and sight and sound protections to all youth under 18, no matter what court they are tried in. The alternative is just too dangerous for our youth and our communities.
Second, I hope that the JJDPA will continue to allow States to have the option to let youth who are convicted in adult court to serve their sentence in juvenile facilities rather than adult prison. It is my understanding that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) recently stopped penalizing States that were allowing youth to serve their time in juvenile facilities and I would like for the Committee to make sure this decision is permanent.
Thank you again for having me here to testify and for giving me the chance to share my story, my family’s story, and Jonathan’s story with you today.
Diana Gonzalez [return to top]
Good afternoon. My name is Diana Gonzalez. I am here to support H.B. 5782, calling for 16- and 17-year-olds to be tried in the juvenile justice system instead of the adult justice system. I know first hand the consequences of treating youth like adults. My son was David Burgos. David committed suicide last July 24 while he was incarcerated at Manson Youth Institution. He was 17-years-old.
We are never going to get a good outcome when teenagers are put together with adults. Teenagers and adults are different from each other. It’s like mixing goats and sheep in the same pasture. You can’t do it. It doesn’t work. What’s frustrating for me is that we know it doesn’t work. We’ve known it doesn’t work for a long time.
So here is my question. What’s it going to take for us to make the change? This issue has already been in front of the legislature for several years. Why do we have to wait until there is a crisis? Why do we wait for a tragedy? Why does someone like my son have to die before we make a change we know is right? It’s time for us to stop talking about making this change and do it. I’m tired of hearing that this is a problem and not seeing any changes being made. I’m tired of reading the articles in the paper and realizing that this is all about money – that people think a change is too expensive.
I’m here today to tell you that it isn’t about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. Do we have the money to do the right thing? We do. We spend the money now, we are just spending the money that we have in the wrong way. The way the system operates now doesn’t work. My son is an example of that. Really, it’s common sense. When you want something you have to invest in it, and do the work before you see the rewards. Business people do it all the time. You don’t see the rewards right away, but over time you see all the rewards and you save money in the long run by spending it correctly in the beginning. It’s about setting priorities and about spending your money in line with those priorities.
There’s talk about making changes in the adult system to make cells or programs better for youth. That would be spending money foolishly. You can’t make an adult cell appropriate for a youth. It also shows a mix up in priorities – that it’s more important to save money than to save youth. What I’m hearing now is that our youth aren’t worth tackling a problem that might be hard and cost some money. What I’m hearing is that my son wasn’t worth it.
Here’s the real question I want to ask you – the real reason I’m here today. Whose child is next? It could be my neighbor’s child, it could be your neighbor’s child, it could be your child. Put yourselves in these shoes. What decision would you make for your child? How would you want your child treated? Make this change. Keep 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system.
Georgia Mae Williamson [return to top]
Thank you for allowing me to present my family’s story today. My name is Georgia Mae Williamson and my grandson, whom I will call “D,” was sentenced to juvenile life without the possibility of parole, a sentence of six years in a maximum secure-care prison. My grandson is an example of a child who fell through the cracks of the juvenile justice system.
D had always been physically and emotionally fragile. He was a sensitive child who required protection. We were shocked when D admitted his behavior which we later found out lacked evidence. We thought D definitely needed help, and our family turned to the system.
D’s parole officer advised the court that he had never seen such a well-behaved child and encouraged the court to impose an alternative sentence to the maximum. The victim’s mother also asked the court not to impose juvenile life. I personally begged the court to find some alternative. D had never been in trouble before, especially with the law.
When D first arrived at Jetson, he received no psychological counseling. It’s common knowledge that sexual abuse left unchecked and untreated, spirals into an infinite cycle. Needless to say, maximum security incarceration was not the place for this child.
Worse, D was terrorized, threatened, and physically abused by guards at Jetson. On June 3, 2003, after being assaulted by several guards, another guard forced D to his knees and threatened him sexually. After D called home, reporting the incident to me, I called the warden, who said he would investigate. Later that evening, my grandson was threatened by three officers, who told him that if I did not back off, D would be “thrown to the Wolves,” referring to the dormitory containing youths incarcerated for the most serious offenses. He said the guards could no longer protect him from the others. The colonel later called me at home telling me that we would be sorry if we pursued an investigation.
The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) investigated D’s case, and were able to file an emergency motion to get D out of Jetson. We then had hearings to discover the truth. D took and passed a polygraph test. He was telling the truth. The guards who terrorized my grandson refused to take the same test.
The New Testament taught us to forgive the sinner and love the youth, but the state of Louisiana still practices Old Testament retribution. I’m ashamed to say our state still sacrifices the youth.
I understand the difficulties of changing our system. But when a scared, harmless15-year old boy is thrown to the wolves, behind razor wire, dragging shackles, living in fear, far from home, it will turn him into nothing but a serious criminal or a ghost of the child who once gave our family such joy.
Please prevent other sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of Louisiana from falling through the cracks. Fix our broken system so at least when our youth are taken they receive therapy, close to home in small and safe facilities.
Ms. Catreeda R. Lloyd [return to top]
Good afternoon, my name is Catreeda R. Lloyd, the parent of a child who, at the age of sixteen, was charged as an adult. He spent three months in the DC Department of Corrections without education or other services.
Just to say a few words about my son, while in custody in the DC Jail, he became withdrawn and angry. He began to isolate himself, and then his began to think that individuals in positions of authority had already labeled and stigmatized him.
Immediately following his arrest he began to feel inadequate, unjustly accused, and like everything was crashing down. He began second guessing himself, and wondering whether or not anybody cared. By this time, the courts had assigned him to live with me. During this change and these proceedings, we attempted to adapt and adjust to everything, but things didn’t get any better, my son began acting out. He spent three months in jail. I wasn’t informed that he would be tried as an adult until about two and a half months later.
His charge (after three months of incarceration) eventually, was changed to a misdemeanor, due to the deposition given to authorities. He now is awaiting sentencing, which is scheduled for this week. All of this came about at a time in which, I was coming full circle with my healing process, (recovering from depression) preparing to get back to work. I wound up passing up two good job opportunities, because I need to be in attendance at all of his court related appointments. It’s been almost two years and I’m still struggling with obtaining work, paying rent, other bills, and caring for three high school teenagers to the best of my ability.
The experience of getting back on track has been very difficult at times, but I continue to be encouraging to my son and move forward. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m caught up in a system that doesn’t really care. After years of hard labor and being a model citizen, today, it’s like my family has become a statistic in this place they call society. How do we come out of it?
I share with you the experience of a mother who was once employed by the government, been living in this society for years, have given of herself for the sake of her children as well as others in my community, I have worked with troubled youth, having a positive impact on the direction of their lives as well as my own children, trying to explain how good it is to live positively and productive in society. My children believe that society doesn’t really care about them.
So, here I am a mother of four, trying to be heard, helped, guided and make a difference under a system, in which I’ve began to lose a lot of hope and trust.
With much more to be said, I’m inclined to keep my comments to a minimum. Therefore, I’d like to close by saying, I ask that you re-examine these harmful policies and procedures. So that other families wouldn’t have to endure the emotional, mental or physical devastations caused by such an experience. Then offenders will have a better set of principles, services and new outlook on life simply by being placed in a situation where rehabilitation is possible. Young people need guidance from individuals who are willing to help them get on track. I thank you all so much for listening, and giving me the opportunity to share my experience.
Ms. Catreeda R. Lloyd
Grace Bauer [return to top]
Testimony before the House Committe on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security
Hearing on "Keeping Youth Safe While in Custody -
Sexual Assault in Adult and Juvenile Facilities
February 23, 2010
Good afternoon Chairman Scott, Ranking Member Gohmert, and other members of the Subcommittee and thank you for having me here to testify. I would like to thank you - and everyone here today - for focusing on an issue of critical importance that for decades was ignored and treated with sneers and ignorance.
My name is Grace Bauer and I am the parent of a youth who has been involved with both the juvenile and the adult criminal justice system. I also work with the Campaign for Youth Justice organizing parents who have had their sons and daughters go through these systems. The Campaign is a national organization working to end the practice of prosecuting youth in adult court and to promote more effective approaches in the juvenile justice system as an effective alternative for these youth.
As a parent of a young man who has been involved in the system, I unfortunately know better than most that individuals who are incarcerated are not valued - no matter that those incarcerated in America number, shamefully, in the millions and their families who love and care for them number in the tens of millions. It is only through the hard work of many, such as the members of the National Prisoner Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) and the Members of Congress who worked to pass the Prison Rape Elimination Act, as well as national non-profit organizations such as Just Detention that this work is discussed at all.
As you know, the recently released BJS study found that - within the past year - over 13 percent of youth in juvenile facilities reported sexual victimization by either staff or other youth in the facility. In addition, we know that this abuse extends to youth who are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system. The NPREC found that "more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse" and recommended that youth be housed separately from adults.
Although this study saddened me, as an advocate and organizer of the families of incarcerated children it certainly didn’t surprise to me. As you listen today to what have become the nightmares of my life in the past nine years, I ask that you hear the voices of the parents and their children that can’t be here today.
In 2001, my 13 year old son - who weighed 90 pounds soaking wet - was adjudicated delinquent and sentenced to five years in a Department of Corrections facility. My son’s crime was stealing a stereo out of a truck with two other boys. At the time, I believed the promises of the probation officer and staff at the juvenile justice department that they would care for my son and get him back on the right track through a program called STOP. I also never asked for an attorney for my son after the probation officer told me an attorney would just stand in the way of my son getting the help the state could provide. I believed my son would have access to treatment to help him deal with the issues he faced.
Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong. In 1998, The New York Times referred to the facility my son was held as a place “so rife with brutality, cronyism and neglect that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation.” My 13 year old boy had to fight for food and do without when his size failed to hold off other kids suffering from malnutrition and desperation. The education he needed - along with the other nearly 400 kids - consisted of a few worksheets, no certified teachers, and school hours filled not with instruction, but with military like exercises done in the heat of the south’s brutal summers. The mental health care the family court judge ordered was non-existent (although it is difficult to see how one could get meaningful mental health treatment in a facility where children live with filth, neglect and rampant abuse). I eventually learned that the STOP program, which the probation offices said would help, had a 70% recidivism rate.
All of this happened five and half hours away from where we lived and many times we traveled all five and half of those hours only to be told our son was denied visitors that day or that he was in the infirmary and we would not be able to see him. The times we did see him, we saw the evidence of the physical abuse he was enduring day after day, mostly at the hands of poorly paid and under trained staff. Black eyes, broken teeth, burst ear drums, broken jaws, broken arms were the daily circumstances of these young people; 140 kids a month were being treated for serious injuries. It wasn’t until I saw the evidence of an assault on my son’s body that I sought the advice of an attorney. By then it was too late. The state now controlled every aspect of my son’s life and I had no say in his treatment or care, nor did I have any power to stop the abuse and neglect of my son. All these years later and hundreds of similar experiences recounted to me by other parents, I still cringe at the level of my ignorance and how little the system people told us.
The emotional toll on my son and so many others like him can’t be measured by statistics. Shortly after being released my son was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The consequences of that abuse and neglect have had a substantial impact on his life and still today affect both his emotional health and his future. The emotional toll on my family and the families of other children can only be described as complete hell.
I wish I could say that what happened to my son was a rarity or that we have come so far in the last nine years that these things don’t happen to children anymore. Let me be loud and clear, there is not one week that goes by in the last nine years that I haven’t heard the pain and pleas of other parents in the same or similar situations: The 13-year-old boy who gets put into a cell with an older, bigger youth and is brutally raped while prison guards stand outside the cell and take bets on which child will be the rapist (the “winner”) and which will be the raped. The 14-year-old girl who suffers a life of physical and sexual assault at the hands of her father and begins leading a life on the streets. After she is locked up, another set of authority figures repeatedly rape her with no where to run this time. The mother who can’t approach her son without alerting him she is coming because, if he doesn’t know she’s coming, he may have a panic attack or strike out in blind fear of another attack.
What I hate most is after all this time I still don’t have good answers for these families any more than anyone had an answer for me. We do nothing to protect those behind bars and instead assume that this is part of the punishment they deserve. No one deserves to be violated but it is even more heinous when it happens at the hands of those with a mandate to keep our children safe. I ask that you consider how we could expect an already vulnerable group of children to live through such violence and neglect all within plain sight of authority and to somehow emerge on the other side as a well adjusted person ready to return and give back to our society. I believe this is why we - as a country - have outrageously high recidivism rates.
Until the NPREC hearings I wondered if this nation had the courage or the political will to look beyond media hype and the political grandstanding on being tough on crime to get to the heart of what happens to millions that belong the next generation of Americans. Fortunately, we have individuals that are tough, but also smart about what the criminal and juvenile justice systems are incapable of doing for us as a society. These individuals are unafraid to go beyond the rhetoric and see the horrendous damage done to those who are the most vulnerable and most unrepresented in this country.
After years of documented cases of sexual assault to children in juvenile facilities, I find it appalling that state administrators still doubt the outcomes of such studies and reports. Many administrators and other state government authorities continue to doubt the repeated findings of sexual assault in their facilities and can’t accept the overwhelming evidence that it exists. For me, this means that we must recognize what we can expect of state juvenile justice authorities when it comes to protecting our children and the answer falls extremely short of our expectations.
The family court judge in my son’s case believed he had no alternative to sending my son away to a state facility and some practitioners believed they were sending children to facilities that would improve their lives and help them succeed. I don’t blame these people for doing what they believed to be right. Instead, the blame I have felt is directed at those who have heard my son’s experience and the experience of other families and their children and failed to act.
Therefore, in closing, I echo The Washington Post editorial printed this weekend and call on Congress to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which would provide protections to youth in both juvenile and adult facilities. I also call on the Department of Justice to fully implement the recommendations of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
Every day that passes without these policies in place, countless numbers of children suffer. And if the statistics in the BJS reports are not enough, I ask you to consider one of these children, who have been beaten, assaulted and raped with no recourse or power to stop it, what if that child was the child’s picture you carry in your pocketbook or wallet? Try for just a few moments to understand the fear you would have for your loved one in a similar situation. Imagine too the complete helplessness of having no way to stop the sickening violence or even having a way in which to address it.
Perhaps then we would not continue to hold hearings, create another commission or issue more reports. Instead, I believe if these were your children, we would do what is right and take action immediately to protect our future and the lives of all of our children.
Thank you for your time and for your efforts on behalf of those whose voices you may never hear.
Vicky Gunderson [return to top]
Before the Wisconsin State Assembly
Committee on Corrections and the Courts - Assembly Bill 732
April 1, 2010
My name is Vicky Gunderson of Onalaska WI. I appreciate your time today to share our families experience with 17 yr olds being defined as adults in regard to Wisconsin’s criminal justice system. Our firstborn son, Kirk completed suicide while being held in the La Crosse County Jail at the age of 17.
Our son, Kirk turned 17 on June 9, 2005 and 9 days later was incarcerated. Over several years leading up to the incident, Kirk had suffered multiple concussions, and was unable to participate in sports, sports were his passion. He had been working a part-time job, and returned home the evening of June 18th with his girlfriend. He and his girlfriend exchanged words which his father overheard regarding drinking and driving. Shortly thereafter he grabbed a knife from the knife block on the counter and became violent stabbing his Dad and his younger brother.
What we did not know was in the state of Wisconsin, a 17-year-old, no matter what the crime, is considered an adult in the criminal justice system. Although many States allow youth to be prosecuted as adults, Wisconsin is one of only 12 states in which youth under the age of 18 do not have access to the juvenile justice system due to lower ages of juvenile court jurisdiction. Each year, an estimated 200,000 youth are processed in adult criminal court in the United States and, on any given day, an estimated 10,000 youth under the age of 18 are incarcerated in adult facilities - 7,500 in adult jails and an additional 2,500 in adult prisons.
These policies exist despite research that shows that prosecuting children in the adult criminal justice system not only causes harm to these youth, but does not ultimately increase public safety. Reports from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), led by a non-federal Task Force on Community Preventive Services, have shown that prosecuting youth in the adult criminal justice system significantly increases crime. The CDC report found that youth who have been previously tried as adults are, on average, 34% more likely to commit crimes than youth retained in the juvenile justice system and recommended against “laws or policies facilitating the transfer of juveniles from the juvenile to the adult judicial system.” The OJJDP report found that prosecuting youth in the adult criminal system substantially increases recidivism and recommended changing laws to decrease the number of youth transferred to the adult criminal justice system.
Research also shows that youth in adult jails are faced with enormous hardships. First, youth in adult jails are at a high risk of suicide - youth in adult jails are 36 times more likely to complete suicide in an adult jail than in a juvenile detention facility. Second, these youth are at great risk of physical and sexual assault. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission also recently found that “more than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse” and recommended that youth be housed separately from adults. Third, youth in jails typically do not have access to age-appropriate programming, such as education, mental health programs, or substance abuse treatment, as compared to youth in juvenile facilities.
The statistics for youth prosecuted as adults in Wisconsin are not much different from the national statistics. In Wisconsin, over 5,000 17-year olds were admitted to jails in 2004. A study of 17-year olds prosecuted in the adult system showed that 70% of these youth went on to commit more crimes, compared to a 27% or less recidivism rate for youth retained in the juvenile justice system. The report also found that the youth most likely to commit additional crimes served their sentence in adult jails. Finally, this report found that youth in adult jails in Wisconsin have access to much fewer services and programs than youth in juvenile justice facilities.
I knew none of this information when Kirk was transferred to the adult criminal justice system - I didn’t even know where the jail was and was unfamiliar with the justice system. However, a life lesson immediately began for the Gunderson family, their families, relatives and friends as this research played itself out on our lives.
At 17, Kirk was incarcerated with adults: 20 years old, 35 years old and 65 years old. During his stay, a convicted sex offender on his block approached him, told Kirk “he was going to have him” and then exposed himself. Kirk reported this incident and - instead of having his issues addressed - lost privileges like attending AA and NA meetings and church for the rest of his 4 months in the jail. While in jail, Kirk wanted to continue to work towards his HS diploma, but his education was limited in the adult jail to 4 hours a week compared to approximately 25 hours a week in a juvenile justice center. He also obtained drugs after another inmate advised him to show he was addicted to drugs. When we visited Kirk, he had facial bruising and would not tell us why or how he had been injured for fear of being considered a snitch. We were never provided family time with Kirk - instead doing individual visits through plexiglas three times a week for 20 minutes each - because he was an adult in the court’s eyes. Never once were we able to give Kirk his greatest wish, a hug. Yet the jail contacted us for permission and our insurance to cover the Prozac medication they were prescribing for his depression, and I also picked up the prescriptions and delivered them to the jail as needed.
We were told by the District Attorney that because Kirk’s dad and brother were the victims, their voices would be heard. Our message to the District Attorney and to the justice system was to 1) keep our son safe, he did not have street smarts to be incarcerated with adults, experienced adults, and 2) most importantly, his Dad stated “our family’s boat capsized and the only person not back in the boat is my son, do not let him drown, we want him to be provided treatment and to be held accountable for his actions.”
Instead, the people who were there to provide guidance to Kirk were his fellow inmates. Kirk listened to the “rotating adult cellmates” with their legal advice. He also did not have any body art, or tattoos, so another creative way for the other inmates to spend time was to teach Kirk how to self-tattoo. Unfortunately for Kirk, this art lesson is the reason he took his life by suicide. After being caught with tattoo-related contraband, Kirk hung himself from a smoke detector grill cover in his solitary cell. He left us a note on wet toilet paper that said “I am sorry, 1-4-3 (means I Love You) Family” Kirk had requested to the jail staff several times not to be left alone. However because he had never been a problem or spoke out while there we were told he was a “model inmate”, and he was not taken seriously. As a parent, when your child states they need you, how do you respond?
What price is a child’s life worth? Kirk represented life, even when he was incarcerated, the inmates sent us letters and cards sharing their sympathies and their admiration of Kirk’s love of life and his faith, and what he provided to them in regard to hope.
Today, my hope as Kirk’s Mom is for the legislature in Wisconsin to Raise the Age with AB732. I realize there is a major concern in regard to the funding, however as I stated before, how do we attach a price to life? There is research available which shows the long-term economic benefits far outweigh the short term costs. With rehabilitation, treatment programs, education and hope for our youth, the research indicates the economy will benefit by $1.7 to $3.4 million over the remainder of a youth’s life who does not re-offend.
In conclusion: Kirk kept a journal for a short period of time while he was incarcerated. His words as a 17 yr old, “I’m not in any way trying to degrade the situation. I do fully understand the seriousness of what happened that night. I thank God everyday that my dad and brother are alright. If they weren’t, I don’t think I could find the courage to live with myself. If I were to be sent to prison, it would be difficult for me to mature into a “normal” adult. Still being in my teenage years I am still developing. Being separated from society, I would be at a disadvantage upon my release as I would not know the ways of a functioning adult in society. I would still be a teenager, just in an adult body with adult situations to be responsible for.”
Thank you very much for your time and consideration in regard to AB732. If I can be of further assistance with information, please do not hesitate to contact me.