The light at the end of the tunnel

In this commentary in the Huffington Post, Xavier McElrath Bey writes about being sentenced to prison as a young teen and his path to change. He exemplifies what research has demonstrated: young people are uniquely capable of change and rehabilitation. The CFSY supports accountability measures that hold young people accountable for their crimes while focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

By Xavier McElrath-Bey

I was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison when I was 13 years old.

I had already spent time in the juvenile detention center on seven different occasions. Yet 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. 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. Only when I was transferred to adult court and spoke to my defense lawyer did I understand that I would likely spend decades in prison. I eventually plead guilty in order to avoid the 40-year sentence the state sought.

Because I was so focused on the daily routine of survival in an aggressive environment, I didn’t have many opportunities to reflect upon my life or even imagine a better future. It wasn’t until I was 18 and in solitary confinement at Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois that I realized how destructive and wrong I had been. I thought about all the people I had hurt; I thought about his family and the pain I had caused them and most of all I wished I had the power to go back in time and save his life. Overwhelmed with remorse and regret, and with my growing sense of disillusionment with the gang life in which I was involved, I began to think about the root causes of my childhood decisions.

I realize that I — like so many misled youth — had been perfectly socialized into being a gang member. My childhood traumas of living in poverty, having a mother diagnosed with mental illness, living in fear of an abusive step-father, and being placed in and out of foster care made me ripe for the occasions of impulsive and destructive behavior — especially gang involvement which gave me the sense of having a new family.

This week we mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth are unconstitutional due to the categorical differences between children and adults. Youth must be held accountable when they cause harm to others, and especially when a life is taken.

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