How You Can Help During the COVID-19 Crisis

How You Can Help During the COVID-19 Crisis

Regardless of background, resources or personal identity, we are all living through a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. In some ways, this pandemic has been called an equalizer — a shared experience with a common goal to come out stronger and healthier than ever. And yet, this crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color, low-income and poor people, and those without the protective factors of stable housing, employment, and established networks. People in prison and those who are home but have enduring criminal records are facing challenges to a degree and scale few of us can imagine.

Like us at the CFSY,  you are probably seeking opportunities to be and feel helpful, to give to those who have less, and to mitigate the economic impact of this crisis in your own communities. For more than a year the CFSY has focused efforts through our Community Prosperity Initiative to form diverse partnerships with the business community to support members of our Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN). Now more than ever our ICAN members and others being released from prison across the country need our support, compassion, and most importantly, resources. 

Every day we’re hearing stories of ICAN members being laid off, having to make impossible decisions to pay rent or buy food, and struggling with the retraumatization of social isolation and constrained physical movement. After being thrown away by the criminal legal system as children, and spending decades in prison, this may in fact be the most challenging of times for ICAN members. And for those still serving extreme sentences, prisons have become a ticking time bomb due to overcrowded and unresourced conditions. 

Please join our partners including Lyft, Starbucks, Verizon, and Google in providing concrete and immediate resources to some of the most vulnerable members of society during this crisis. 


Most Urgent Needs:

  • Free or discounted mental health counseling
  • Gift cards to grocery stores and online food/supply sites
  • Equipment (phones, laptops, tablets, iPads) for virtual connection, online shopping and job searching 
  • Subsidized or discounted phone and internet plans
  • Interest-free short-term loans to individuals
  • Contributions to commissary accounts so those still in prison can purchase soap, hand sanitizer, and food


For more information, and to support our ICAN members during this critical time, please email Anna Melbin at [email protected].


And please, however you choose to help and get involved, keep top of mind those who are most marginalized and therefore disproportionately impacted during and after this pandemic. Help ensure equitable responses by prioritizing people of color, and others who have been systematically barred from the social and economic resources needed to weather this storm. 


From all of us at the CFSY to you, your families and communities, we wish you health and safety. And we thank you for your support. 


Cyntoia Brown Granted Clemency

Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced he had granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, who has been serving a life sentence since killing her abuser when she was 16. CFSY Youth Justice Advocate Eric Alexander released the following statement:

I am very proud of my home state of Tennessee today after our Governor’s decision to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown. A victim of sex trafficking, she was given life in prison for a crime she committed as a teen. Cyntoia’s much-deserved clemency should serve as a reminder and example of the need for systemic change to our justice system so that young people who come in conflict with the law are held accountable in age-appropriate ways with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

I say this as someone who, like Cyntoia, once faced a lifetime in the Tennessee Department of Corrections for a crime I committed as a teen. There are thousands of us across the country, but most don’t have celebrity advocates. We are the only country in the world that sentences our children to life without parole. The majority of the people serving these sentences experienced violence in their communities as children. I hope Cyntoia’s story will open the eyes of our country and serve as a rallying cry to end the extreme sentencing of youth once and for all.

Additional coverage can be found at The Tennesseean.

Washington State Supreme Court Rules Life Without Parole for Children Unconstitutional

The landmark decision makes Washington the 21st state (plus DC) to ban the sentence, meaning a majority of states now ban or do not use it

October 18, 2018, Washington, DC –– Today, the Washington State Supreme Court handed down a decision in State of Washington v. Brian Bassett, in which it ruled that sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional, thereby banning this inhumane sentence in that state. (Read an amicus brief filed by the Juvenile Law Center with input from the CFSY here).

Washington is now the 21st state, plus the District of Columbia, to ban sentencing children to life without parole — in 2012, only five states banned the practice. For the first time in history, a majority of states ban or do not use life without parole for children. Included in that majority are “blue” and “red” states alike, such as Arkansas, Utah, Nevada, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and California. The United States Supreme Court has also stepped to limit this practice three times since 2010.

The Washington State Supreme Court recognized this momentum in its opinion, in which it found that “states are rapidly abandoning juvenile life without parole sentences, children are less criminally culpable than adults, and the characteristics of youth do not support the penological goals of a life without parole sentence.” Nearly a dozen people told as children they would die in prison in Washington are now eligible to be resentenced.

“We’re thrilled that children sentenced to life without parole in Washington now have hope of a second chance and that Washington has joined the ever-growing number of states that have abandoned the barbaric practice of sentencing our children to die in prison,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “This national trend reflects an emerging consensus that our children who commit serious crimes should be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways that focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

Brian Bassett was a homeless sixteen-year-old when he was sentenced to life without parole in 1995. At his original trial, the judge called Bassett, still a child, “a walking advertisement” for the death penalty. Eventually, his case made its way to the Washington Court of Appeals which decided in favor of Bassett, a decision which was held by the Washington Supreme Court today. The Court of Appeals deemed it too risky to label a child “irreparably corrupt,” saying “given the difficulty even expert psychologists have in determining whether a person is irreparably corrupt and the extremely high stakes of the decision… this type of discretion produces unacceptable risk that children undeserving of a life without parole sentence will receive one.”

For more information, or if you would like to speak with Jody Kent Lavy or legal director Heather Renwick, please contact Karmah Elmusa at [email protected] | 202-289-4677 ext. 113.


The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition that leads, coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) introduces bill to end JLWOP in federal criminal justice system

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) applauds Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AR) for championing HR 6011, which would end life-without-parole and de facto life sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system and bring the country in line with most of the world in repudiating these draconian sentences for kids.

The use of extreme sentences on children, like life without the possibility of release or parole,  ignores what adolescent development research has documented and every parent knows: Children are not the same as adults. Drawing in part on research demonstrating that children possess less capacity than adults to control their impulses, think through the long-term consequences of their actions, or avoid pressure from peers and adults, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that children should not be subject to our country’s most extreme punishments.

“This legislation does not guarantee release. Instead, it provides the opportunity for a rehabilitated individual whose crime was committed in his or her youth and who has served a minimum of 20 years to have a sentence reviewed by a judge to determine whether a second chance is merited,” Westerman said. “I thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for joining with me in this effort to provide the opportunity for a second chance for individuals who strayed from the law during adolescence.”

Congressman Westerman’s bill comes one year after his home state of Arkansas passed legislation banning life-without-parole from being used on children there. That legislation, now titled Act 539, impacted more than 100 people in the state and received broad bi-partisan support in the legislature. In addition to Arkansas, nineteen other states and the District of Columbia prohibit children from being sentenced to die in prison. Over the last five years, the number of states that ban these inhumane sentences has quadrupled, with conservative states like Arkansas, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia leading the way.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has a similar provision to protect children from being condemned to die in prison in the Sentencing Reform and Correction Act (S. 1917). The CFSY worked closely with both Senator Grassley and Congressman Westerman on the legislation.

“We’re grateful that the inhumane practice of sentencing children to die in prison is being addressed at the federal level through the leadership of Congressman Westerman of Arkansas,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Arkansas is among a rapidly growing number of states reforming their youth sentencing laws to ensure that all children have the opportunity to demonstrate that they are more than their worst acts and deserve second chances. This bill is a reflection of our belief that there is no such thing as a throwaway child and that no child should be sentenced to die in prison.”

HR 6011 will ensure that children sentenced in the federal system have the opportunity to petition a judge to review their sentence after they have served 20-25 years in prison. Impacted individuals will be afforded counsel at each of their review hearings – a maximum of 3 – where the judge will consider, among other factors, their demonstrated maturity, rehabilitation, and fitness to re-enter society. HR 6011 does not guarantee an individual’s release, but will ensure that children prosecuted and convicted of serious crimes in the federal system are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate whether they are deserving of a second chance.



Media Contact: Karmah Elmusa | [email protected] | 202-289-4677 ext. 113


Law would be the worst among states that have passed legislation following U.S. Supreme Court mandate in Montgomery v. Louisiana

May 2, 2018, Washington, DC –– Today, in a misguided effort to comply with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on sentencing children to life without parole, the Oklahoma legislature passed SB 1221. If signed into law, this bill would make it easier for children in Oklahoma to receive draconian life-without-parole sentences, scaling back protections that were put in place by the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals – including protections that require a jury to find that a child is beyond rehabilitation before such a sentence could be imposed.

Oklahoma’s neighbors – including Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and Colorado – have eliminated life-without-parole sentences for children. In making SB 1221 law, Oklahoma would not only be out of step with the region, but would have the worst law of this kind in the country and would become a national outlier when it comes to how the state treats children who are convicted of serious crimes.

“This bill flies directly in the face of the momentum we’ve seen around the country to end the barbaric practice of sentencing children to die in prison – a practice only seen in the United States. Not only has the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in almost all cases, but the number of states to ban life without parole has quadrupled in just the last six years, with traditionally conservative states leading the way,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Science has shown us that children are different than adults. Their brains are not as developed, and just as they do not vote or serve in the military, they are not deserving of the same punishments. We ask Governor Fallin to veto this bill immediately, lest her state become a national aberration in its treatment of the most vulnerable among us — our children.”

Under SB 1221, children would lose the right to jury sentencing, while adults who commit the same crimes would still have that right. In other words, if made law, the bill would ensure that youth offenders in Oklahoma are treated worse than their adult counterparts. SB 1221 also raises serious constitutional concerns and will likely tie up Oklahoma Courts for years.

Finally, SB 1221 includes a 14-page amendment that was never vetted before any legislative committee in Oklahoma and was drafted wholly by the District Attorneys Council without input from judges, child advocates, or defense attorneys in the state. Oklahoma should be as thoughtful as its neighbors when crafting policies that will have a significant impact on children in the state, especially one that may take away their current constitutional rights.

For more information, or if you would like to speak with Jody Kent Lavy or advocacy director James Dold, please contact Karmah Elmusa at [email protected] | 202-289-4677 ext. 113.


The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition that leads, coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth.

Legal Highlights: Lengthy and 'de facto life' sentences for children

The first few months of 2018 have seen a number of cases from state appellate courts on issues surrounding juvenile sentencing, many of them addressing lengthy or de facto life without parole sentences. Here are a few highlights from these recent opinions:

On March 9th, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a 25-life sentence for a teenager convicted of homicide, continuing a long line of cases recognizing that kids are fundamentally different from adults and that the justice system should take their youth into account. In State v. Zarate, the court reaffirmed its prior holding that the vast majority of children should never be parole ineligible. In this case, it found that the sentencing court “allowed the circumstances of the offense to overwhelm its analysis” and that the judge had an improper predisposition to sentence Zarate to a mandatory minimum.

In a concurring opinion, one of the justices argued that because scientists have found that “the character of a juvenile offender is still being formed until the offender ages into the mid-twenties,” minimum sentences without parole eligibility “may constitutionally extend only as necessary to ensure complete character formation.” If at that point an offender can demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation, keeping them in prison “for purposes of incapacitation beyond that period is a purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering.” The opinion went on to say that because predicting the future and rehabilitation prospects of a child is “not possible with any degree of accuracy,” the constitutional approach is to abolish all mandatory minimum sentences for children and instead “allow the parole board to make periodic judgments as to whether a child offender has demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation based on an observable track record.”

In People v. Contreras, the Supreme Court of California overturned a 50-life sentence for a teenager who committed a non-homicide offense, finding the sentence unconstitutional under Graham v. Florida. The court reasoned that while the sentence does not completely foreclose the possibility of release before the end of the average person’s expected lifespan,Graham contemplated more than a short time outside of prison prior to death, but rather “a sufficient period to achieve reintegration as a productive and respected member of the citizenry.” As a prison term allowing for no possibility of release until well after age 60 would not allow for this reintegration, the court found that the sentence violated the 8th Amendment and sent the case back to the lower court for resentencing.

Finally, in New Mexico, the state’s highest court recently cited to the work of the CFSY in holding that Graham v. Florida’s requirement that youth convicted of non-homicide crimes be afforded a “meaningful opportunity for release” applies to lengthy term-of-years sentences for multiple offenses. Citing the remarks of James Dold, CFSY Advocacy Director, during a hearing on behalf of legislation which later banned JLWOP in Nevada, the court called on the New Mexico legislature to adopt legislation providing a parole eligibility timeline for children.

From the Desk of the Director: Black History Month

Dear friends,

As Black History Month draws to a close, we are particularly mindful of the devastating impact of the “superpredator theory,” a racially biased, scientifically deficient idea suggesting that black teenagers are hyper-criminal. This reactionary premise has shaped a generation of youth sentencing laws and contributed to a climate in which it is socially, culturally, and politically acceptable to sentence children to die in prison. The theory has been debunked, but its legacy remains as black youth are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth, and its residue informs the rhetoric and policies throughout our country.

At the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, we are confronting these disparities as part of our commitment to bring forth greater racial justice through our work. We seek to change our country’s laws, the narrative about young people who go to prison for serious crimes, and the perception that black children are criminals as early as preschool. We want to ensure that no child is ever sentenced to die in prison and that every child has an opportunity for a second chance, regardless of their race, socio-economic background or the crime of which they have been accused.

This is a huge job. Throughout our country’s history, racial animus and bias deeply imbedded in the very foundation of our criminal justice have led to significantly harsher penalties for African Americans accused of crimes than for whites charged with the same offenses. Children have been given no reprieve, whether Emmett Till, bludgeoned and drowned in Money, Mississippi, after he was accused of whistling at a white woman; George Stinney, executed at 14 in by the state of South Carolina (and exonerated decades later); or black teens today who face far stricter punishment and more frequent out-of-school suspensions than their white peers. Sentencing children to life without parole stands as another example of this injustice and highlights the ways that bias can influence science—which we are taught is impartial—and lead to tragic results.

In the early 1990s, academics, politicians, and the media responded with hysteria to upward blips in crimes committed by youth. They warned the country to brace for the rise of a new type of criminal: the superpredator. These “fatherless, godless” monsters would be primarily black teens, and they would kill and create terror with no thought of the consequences.

The predictions never came true, and the country saw historically low levels of crimes committed by youth. The superpredator theory was debunked, and its originator acknowledged he was wrong. But by then, the damage had been done. Responding to the crack epidemic, many states were already enacting harsh mandatory minimum sentences as part of what we now know as the failed “war on drugs.” Following the cry of pundits, they also made it easier to try and convict children as if they were adults. The result was that crimes that had previously been adequately handled in juvenile court now led to long sentences in adult prisons. The numbers of children serving life without parole increased exponentially, with the sentence ultimately imposed upon more than 2,500 children. Overall, approximately 70 percent of people serving JLWOP are people of color. African Americans comprise 60 percent of people with the sentence.

In recent years, court rulings and legislative reforms have created review opportunities for many of these individuals, some of whom have now spent decades in prisons for crimes committed before they could vote or enlist in the military. Throughout the country, many people told as children that they would die in prison are now going home and beginning new lives in free society. Yet, trends suggest that racial disparities persist in the resentencing phase.

This is a reminder that changing laws, while important, isn’t enough. We have to change the hearts and minds of elected officials and Americans. This is what we seek to do by centering the experiences and expertise of members of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) in our work.

We also are committed to telling the truth about race and racism, and we will do everything we can to eradicate it from the criminal and juvenile justice systems. We understand this is a huge task, but we also know that we are laboring alongside committed partners like you. The status quo simply isn’t good enough. The denial of Henry Montgomery’s parole last week, after serving 54 years in prison for killing a white law enforcement officer as a child, and being held up as a “model prisoner” by the United States Supreme Court, is just the? most recent—and devastatingly egregious—example of all the work left to be done.

So, as we look back during this Black History Month, we are also looking forward, redoubling our efforts to ensure that the value we place on our children’s lives, and the potential we see in them to grow and change, are not dependent on their race, but on their innate characteristics as children. There is no such thing as a throwaway child, and we are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Thank you for standing with us to ensure our policies and practices reflect this truth.

Two years after Montgomery, progress and work to be done

On January 25, 2016 – two years ago today – the United States Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, giving hope and a chance for life outside of prison to individuals sentenced to life without parole for offenses committed as children.

When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, over 2,600 individuals in the U.S. were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), a sentence only imposed in the United States. In the two years since, seven states and the District of Columbia have banned JLWOP, and the number of individuals serving JLWOP has been cut in half, both through resentencing hearings and state legislative reform. Hundreds are coming home, and in fact, it was announced this week that former juvenile lifer Kempis Songster is going to the Super Bowl as a guest of Philadelphia Eagle Malcolm Jenkins.

On the other hand, many other juvenile lifers, including Mr. Montgomery himself, remain incarcerated and have not been given the meaningful opportunity for release that this decision promised. To illuminate some of this, we’ve created a snapshot that highlights both the progress we’ve made and the challenges that remain. It includes information about resentencings and state legislative accomplishments, portraits of juvenile lifers returning home, details about the uneven implementation of Montgomery, and recommendations for future reform. Read it in full here:


We could not have come so far in two years without your support. Thank you! We must continue the fight to ensure that no child is sentenced to die in prison and that those who have been see the relief they are due.

CFSY Honors Eric Holder, Lucy Lee Helm, Anita Colon, and Eric Alexander at Healing & Hope

THANK YOU, to all who made last night such a great success. We were so proud to host former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., Starbucks Chief Partner Officer Lucy Lee Helm and advocate Anita Colon as our honorees at last night’s Healing & Hope. They joined 300 of our supporters, youth advocates and formerly incarcerated individuals and their families at our sold out event.

Throughout the evening we had the opportunity to celebrate our successes and re-energize ourselves for the work still ahead in ending life without parole sentences for children.

We ended the evening with a little surprise, honoring our own staff member Eric Alexander in recognition of his years of hard work as a co-founder of the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN).  Eric was overwhelmed by the recognition, and by our secretly flying his wife and family into Washington DC for the evening.

With dozens of ICAN members in the room, we challenged our guests to raise an additional $25,000 to facilitate our hiring another ICAN member to our team in 2018.  We are thrilled to report that the crowd met our challenge!  We are grateful for the support and look forward to deploying these additional funds next year.

Healing & Hope is our opportunity to recognize the hard work and commitment that takes place year round. We could not do this work without you and your support. We can’t wait to see you at next year’s Healing & Hope!

About the Honorees

Former Attorney General Eric Holder has played an instrumental role in the justice system. In 2013 as part of the Obama administration, Mr. Holder spearheaded the Smart on Crime Initiative which began a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system. His dedication to criminal justice reform is further exemplified in his leadership of the Task Force On Children Exposed to Violence. Mr. Holder is now a partner at Covington & Burling, LLP.

Lucy Lee Helm currently acts as Starbucks’ Chief Partner Officer and has been instrumental in Starbucks’ work to ensure second chances for all kids. Ms. Helm and Starbucks are part of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which aims to bridge the opportunity divide for the 4.9 million Americans, aged 16 – 24, who are out of school and not working. Starbucks’ commitment to working with underrepresented communities has been instrumental to our mission, especially as more men and women are leaving prison and in search of first jobs.

Anita Colon has been fighting and advocating for juvenile justice reform for over 27 years after her brother Robert was sentenced to life without parole at the young age of 16. Just two weeks ago, our staff was in attendance in Philadelphia as Robert was resentenced and made immediately eligible for parole. Anita has worked tirelessly every day of her brother’s incarceration on reforms that will not only impact his life, but the lives of so many others.

Eric Alexander is the co-founder of ICAN, Eric was incarcerated for ten years before being granted parole, and has been on our staff since April. Eric’s personal history and passion for youth justice reform has made him an indispensable voice in our movement to end this country’s most extreme sentences for children.

Featured photo and event photography generously provided by DCEventPhoto



California becomes 20th state to abolish life-without-parole sentences for children

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill that bans sentencing children to life without parole in the state of California. The sentence of life without parole for children is one that is only imposed in the United States. California joins 19 other states and the District of Columbia that have already abolished this draconian punishment, and five that do not use it. In 2012, just five states banned life without parole for youth – the addition of California quadruples that number and shows momentum toward an emerging national consensus against sentencing children to die in prison.

Senate Bill 394, which was sponsored by Senator Ricardo Lara, not only bans life-without-parole sentencing for youth but stipulates that those sentenced as youth are parole-eligible in the 25th year of their sentence.

“We are thrilled that the state of California continues to reform its laws to ensure that our children are treated with mercy by the criminal justice system, and that their unique potential for positive change is recognized,” says Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, who spearheaded efforts in support of this legislation. “We’ve taken the logical next step in terms of compliance with recent decisions of both the state and U.S. Supreme Courts, and have finally put into law what many states had previously embraced, that life without parole is excessive for adolescents.”

Influenced by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions grounded in adolescent development research that held that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties, the nation has increasingly moved away from life-without-parole sentences for children. California was an early leader in its passage of SB 9 in 2012, which allowed children sentenced to life without parole to have their sentences revisited by a judge. This year, the California Supreme Court found that U.S. Supreme Court decision Miller v. Alabama (2012) required more protections than SB 9 provided.

SB 394 now ensures those those sentenced to life without parole as children have meaningful review like all other California youth. This is a crucial reform since California has the fourth largest population of youth sentenced to life without any possibility of parole or release.

“By banning life without parole for children, California policymakers affirmed that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done,” says Jody Kent Lavy, executive director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Adolescent development research affirms that children – even those who commit serious crimes – possess a unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. Rather than sentencing them to die in prison, we should hold children who commit serious crimes accountable in ways that account for their age at the time of the crime, relevant childhood experiences, and their capacity for change.”

Research has also shown that many children who commit serious crimes have experienced severe trauma in their own lives, and often do not have systems of support in place to help them process it. “Like many of the people serving these sentences, I experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child and joined a gang for a sense of family,” says Xavier McElrath-Bey, a formerly incarcerated youth and now Senior Advisor and National  Advocate at the CFSY.  “At age 13, I was responsible for the tragic death of another child.  I spent 13 years in prison.  I learned my lesson and grew into a remorseful adult. Today, at age 41, I am living proof that no child is beyond redemption, which is why youth should never be sentenced to die in prison.”