On Thursday night, community members once again rallied outside of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago. Led by young Black organizers, those present attended with a dual purpose: to show love for the young people caged inside the facility, and to demand the ouster of a States Attorney whose policies have kept so many of them locked away.
While many have rallied against the reelection of States Attorney Anita Alvarez in recent months, the children whose lives have been destroyed by Alvarez’s hard line policies have largely been left out of the electoral discussion. Activists and organizers who have made a point of returning to the juvenile detention center in recent years, however, wanted to make sure that the public remembered these young victims of Alvarez’s blunt and thoughtless policies.
Chicago organizer Mariame Kaba, who has long advocated for Black, incarcerated youth, was in attendance, and spoke on the need to oust Alvarez “to save the lives of children.” During her remarks, Kaba explained that those working under Alvarez are not allowed the discretion of pursuing less severe penalties against youth offenders, but are instead expected to pursue the stiffest penalties as a matter of policy.
In her youth advocacy work, Kaba is all too familiar with Alvarez’s harsh treatment of juvenile offenders. “The Illinois Juvenile Justice Act explicitly states that incarceration should be a last resort for children,” says Kaba. “For my part, I believe that jail and prison is no place for children or anyone else. But Anita Alvarez has repeatedly instructed her Assistant State Attorneys to seek maximum penalties against children. Her challenger Kim Foxx confirms as much in her response to a survey issued by the Juvenile Justice Initiative of Illinois.”
In the response from Foxx that Kaba is referring to, the challenger had this to say about Alvarez’s treatment of youth offenders:
“Unfortunately for our youth, Ms. Alvarez has taken discretion away from frontline ASAs. In juvenile court she has also directed her ASAs to seek the maximum penalty in every case and seek approval to reduce charges or plea agreements that don’t offer the maximum sentence. This directly violates the spirit and text of the Juvenile Court Act and is also the reason that bench and jury trials have increased at juvenile court.”
None of this should be surprising to anyone who is familiar with Alvarez’s stance on life sentences for children.
The impressively long list of egregious acts perpetrated by Alvarez’s office sadly includes her successful effort to uphold the life sentence of a juvenile offender, even after the Supreme Court determined that mandatory life sentences, without parole, for juvenile offenders amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Adolfo Davis, whose childhood was marked by abject poverty and untreated mental health issues, was 14 at the time of his conviction. Originally sentenced to life without parole, Davis was eligible for re-sentencing in 2012, after the SCOTUS decision on juvenile sentences was rendered. But Anita Alvarez vehemently opposed any reconsideration of Davis’ fate, and ultimately ensured that Davis will remain in prison for the rest of his life.
Among the speakers at Thursday night’s event at the juvenile detention center was Kaleb Autman, a student at the Village Leadership Academy, who noted that many of the youth inside the facility “look like me.” It was not the first time that Autman had addressed a crowd outside the facility, which he and other Village Leadership Academy youth have returned to numerous times, to demand the release of their peers and to remind those trapped inside that they are not forgotten. “We all know that Alvarez has to go,” Autman solemnly told the crowd, as those present watched children inside the facility pound windows, raise their fists, and form hearts with their hands.
Autman’s teacher at the Village Leadership Academy, Page May, does not mince words about what’s at stake in this election.”This is not a game,” says May. “So much is at stake: If re-elected Anita Alvarez will continue to criminalize, lock up, and cover up the murder of young Black people. Lives are on the line.” May, who was one of the event’s organizers, works closely with Black youth as an educator, and as an organizer with the grassroots group Assata’s Daughters. “The people who are most impacted by the actions of the States Attorney, young Black people, are not even allowed to vote,” May explains. “So last night, we rallied outside the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center to bring a message of love to the young people inside. The image of young folks banging on their cell windows will be at the front of my mind when I cast my vote next Tuesday.”
As a non-Black person of color who stands in solidarity with my Black friends and allies in struggle, I will also be keeping those children in my thoughts as I vote on Tuesday. Because each one of those children, locked away from any hope of a world that might help them heal and grow, deserves to have their abuser challenged by anyone who would claim to care about them.
In the words of Mariame Kaba, “Anita Alvarez is pro-criminalization of children. It’s time for her to go.”