At 13, he was arrested in a gang-related murder on Chicago’s South Side. He already had 19 previous arrests.

He was thrown in filthy and treacherous jail “bullpens,” Xavier McElrath-Bey recalled Tuesday afternoon from the stage at the Chicago Cultural Center. As a “little kid,” he stood naked in a long line with grown, naked men, “waiting for a med tech to stick a Q-Tip into my private areas.”

OPINION

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

McElrath-Bey admits he made poor choices. Terrible choices.

But, the engaging African-American man in the suit now says, he “also had a horrendous childhood.” Grew up poor in the Back of the Yards, was put in foster care at age 6. “Lived in poverty and had to contend with mental health problems and substance abuse in his home,” he told the crowd.

“That same Xavier was shot in his face at that age 11, and almost lost his life.”

He still had to do the hard time.

McElrath-Bey changed, thanks to mentoring and support from his public defender, GED instructor, college professor and fellow inmates. He grew up.

He was released in 2002 after serving 13 years, earned a master’s degree from Roosevelt University. Now 42, McElrath-Bey is a senior advisor and national advocate at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

“I was not the only one. Many kids were getting got 40, 50, 60 years, some life sentences without parole.”

Today’s youths are getting help. About 250 justice reform advocates gathered to celebrate that at a forum on juvenile justice reform hosted by the MacArthur Foundation. (The foundation compensated me to moderate a discussion at the event).

MacArthur collaborated with a slew of advocates, attorneys, civic and community leaders, scholars and more, in its 10-year, $140 million Models for Change program. It helped “drive reform in more than 35 states to create a more rational, fair, effective and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system,” according to the foundation.

And to “ensure that no child is deemed incorrigible or thrown away forever,” said McElrath-Bey.

Scientific brain research shows that before 16, adolescents are less likely to fully understand and participate in legal proceedings, less socially and emotionally immature, and more susceptible to suggestion and trauma.

That research was cited in five U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including the 2005 landmark Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the death penalty for teenagers under 18.

Now, in Illinois, children under 18 are automatically sent to the juvenile court. The state has eliminated the automatic transfer of 15-year-olds to adult courts. Three juvenile prisons have closed. There are comprehensive confidentiality and expungement protections for youths, and safeguards for those subjected to police questioning. Young people who commit misdemeanors are no longer incarcerated.

They benefit from “wraparound services” to ameliorate poverty, employment, mental health, substance abuse, and community-based alternatives to incarceration.

All this has “changed the culture,” said Laurie Garduque, who directs McArthur’s justice programs. But “we still have a long way to go to address the injustices in our system.”

MacArthur is shifting to focus on adults in the criminal justice system. Other funders and advocates must step up.

They face many threats. Most ominous: America’s growing culture of intolerance — Trumpism, white supremacy, stereotypes that paint children of color as inherently violent and unworthy.

“We need to move to a system where we’re not incarcerating children. We know it doesn’t work,” said Julie Biehl, director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.  “It just makes them better criminals.”

Email: lauraswashington@aol.com

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