Lael Chester #9

Executive Director

Citizens for Juvenile Justice


More than fifty percent of our kids in confinement have been in the child welfare system. These kids go from being perceived by society as a victim to being a perpetrator in an instant.



Interview by Heidi Legg

What is Citizens for Juvenile Justice?

Citizens for Juvenile Justice (CfJJ) is the only independent, non-profit, statewide organization working exclusively to improve the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts.

A recent Citizens for Juvenile Justice report indicates that there's a 47 percent greater likelihood of a teen being arrested again if the adolescent is charged in the adult system versus the juvenile system. The report also said younger inmates are more likely to be sexually victimized.

Does Citizens for Juvenile Justice take on individual children’s cases?

We don't do any direct service. It doesn't mean we're not getting phone calls from desperate kids and parents, but we try to refer them to the right people who can handle their particular case: an education advocate, doctor, psychologist or social worker. We look at the system as a whole and say, 'What can we do to change it and make it better?'

Can you give us an example of situations you try to solve?

A classic example for a long time was that the court shackled kids. All kids were shackled no matter what, no matter how minor, such as skateboarding where you're not supposed to be skateboarding and a parent comes to the court and they see their child shackled. This is a child who will never, ever be confined for that crime even if found easily guilty. Any young child is going to be traumatized and you start thinking why should any child be shackled unless there's a public safety risk? If somebody wants to go to the court and say, 'Your honor, based on the following facts, we believe this individual should be shackled.' What is that? Like, one out of every 5,000 kids? This is a kid in a courtroom with many adults. They're not going anywhere. And most of them are so cowered and frightened, they can barely move.

One of the things we look at is in the big picture: how do we as a society want to respond when kids misbehave? From the most minor misbehavior to being incredibly rowdy, to serious, serious, tragic crimes like murder. Murder by juveniles happens very, very infrequently, but it has always happened in the history of society, and we as a society must ask how we want to respond. The problem today is that we don't think about it. We respond in a certain way because either we've always done it that way or that's how we do it with adults.

What do you want the public to think about?

I want the public to remember that we were all kids and to remember what made a difference in our lives. Many of us have children or children we care about -- nieces or nephews. Do any of us think a seven year old should be incarcerated? In Massachusetts, we never question that. We have chosen age seven as the age of criminal responsibility. At age seven you can be arrested, handcuffed, jailed and you can go to court. Why? We chose it in the colonial era. Is that relevant today? No. And yet we just keep going along. 

While we start juvenile confinement at seven in Massachusetts, we end it on a child's seventeenth birthday. At seventeen, you’re considered an adult even though you can't vote, you can't serve on a jury of your own peers, nor sign a contract. But you will be tried as an adult. You can't even drink until you're twenty-one.

Massachusetts is one of 13 states where criminal cases involving seventeen year olds are handled in the adult justice system rather than juvenile justice system. We are pressing state lawmakers to change that and keep offenders in the juvenile system until they’re eighteen.

What is the answer for children under 18?

Kids need to be in a separate system — the juvenile system — where people have expertise in childhood development. In Massachusetts, juvenile judges are assigned to hear cases about children and adolescents who are accused of crime and also those who are victims of abuse and neglect, what we call "child welfare" cases.  There is often a great deal of overlap amongst these two types of juvenile cases.  Sadly, it's often just a matter of chance which system a child ends up in.  

When a kid picks up a criminal case, even before there's actually been a judgment of whether they committed the crime, it's like a switch goes off and people fail to recognize the fact that that child might have been in the juvenile system for most of his or her life as the victim, been removed from his or her family, often bouncing around from foster home to foster home, only adding to the trauma. 

Frequently, the charges against a child are minor, like the child is disruptive and loud at school or it could be that the child is living in a group home and angry and throws a chair and then — boom! ­­­The child is in the juvenile system. What you're really doing is just preparing them for a lifetime in the adult system unless you can bring in what we at Citizens for Juvenile Justice know works.

What works?

Music lessons, art lessons, visiting with family, socializing, meeting new people, and being exposed to new things. Think about what would happen if you took one of our kids right now and confined them for three years and took away all the opportunities that they get to enjoy now, at the most important stage of their lives, when they're developing as a person and they're learning their social skills. Even if that confinement were well done, where kids were safe and cared for, even in the best-case scenario, those kids will never be the same. You have taken away the opportunity for them to grow up in a healthy, positive way. 

What are you trying to solve this year alone?

Our biggest campaign is to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from seventeen to eighteen years old. We want to capture the whole cadre of seventeen-year-olds, which last year was about 3,300 kids, who were charged with a crime in court and then automatically sent to adult court. Many of those cases happened in school settings. As adults, they cannot get any of the services that are available in the juvenile system.

Is there a state you hold up as a beacon?

Ironically, Massachusetts was the beacon for many, many years. In the '70s and '80s, we were considered the national model. A very brave man came into Massachusetts in '69, and worked for Governor Sergeant. His name was Jerry Miller and he closed what in those days we called training schools or reformatories - euphemisms for prisons - and created small community-based services for kids in our juvenile justice system. It was an absolute sea change and it made us the most effective juvenile justice system in the country.

Unfortunately the '90s came and there was a surge in juvenile crime as there was everywhere in the country, and we started to destroy our own model system and rebuild the prisons and go back to prior, more draconian policies. Today, for kids who are in the deep end of the system, I would say Missouri is seen as a role model for what you do with kids in confined setting. 

Are you trying to go back to Jerry Miller’s ways?

I would love Massachusetts to be the state the rest of the nation could follow. One element of this work we are really exploring right now is one that's hard for me to articulate. It has to do with dignity and human right.

I think a huge component of the criminal system and the juvenile system today is shame. I don’t know if it makes us feel better in society or makes victims feel better to shame the criminal, but I don’t know what we get from shaming a child.

I know as a parent, when I'm disciplining my child, if I can't give them a way out and give them a sense of pride, it doesn’t work. Yes, I want them to learn, but I don't want to hurt their core. To me, it is important that we respect that these are kids and that core is very important. We don't know how they're going to turn out yet. They're just growing and they're developing, and I think if we don't give them that space and opportunity to develop in a healthy way, if we don't just bury them in shame, then they can be the kind of community members that we want to be with.

You launched a Just Facts campaign. How is that going?

Well, I think it's going well but we're not there yet. The funny part about the juvenile system is that it is a closed system. You can't go to court today and say, 'I want to sit in on a juvenile session. I want to see what's going on.'

There are many benefits of having a closed system: kids get some protections, but the downside is that nobody knows what's going on and the players in the system are very reluctant to share basic data, like how many kids are arrested a year? Who are these kids? What's their gender? Their race? Ethnicity? What are they being arrested for? How many of them go to court? As taxpaying people we might want to know the answers to those questions. Good luck! Good luck!

Part of it is persuading the system players themselves that they should want to track this. To convince them they want to know these numbers for their budget and for their own planning purposes and to have some outcome measurements. Some people in the system are doing some wonderful things, but they're not capturing that data. When it’s all anecdotal data, it's very hard to persuade other people to expand or to invest in the program.

Who do you have collecting this data right now?

We're a small office. We just have four people at CfJJ, and it's largely myself and one other staff person, Naoka Carey, who are collecting the data right now. The Public Records Act allows us to get some of the information, but they're not legally obligated to share it. It's sort of begging and cajoling, pleading, whatever it takes.

How would you like public opinion to change?

That's a huge one. I think that depending on how you phrase the issues to the public depends on their feelings. Think about our image of a juvenile? Pretty negative, and that’s a hurdle. But when you actually ask the public things like, would you be willing to spend more tax dollars to increase funding for kids and hold them accountable if they could get access to and be required to attend school and have mental health services, etc, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. People want kids to be held accountable, but they want them to be in school and I think that's where kids should be.

One of the problems with having seventeen year olds outside the juvenile system is that if you're arrested and you're seventeen; your parents are never notified. No one calls the parent and they’re not part of the case. The parents are not invited to the hearings. Now, 99% of the public in our polling believe that parents should be notified, that parents should be actively involved. And just because you're child's seventeen, doesn't mean you stop your parenting role.

I would like the public to look at the pre-teen or teenager that they know in their lives and think about what they hope for their future, what they think they would need to get there, and apply that to the juvenile justice system. I think too often the response is, 'It's not my kid. It's somebody else's kid,’ and having that sort of emotional removal allows, I think, some crazy things to happen in the juvenile system that we as a society reject ownership. I think we know what kids need, but somehow if they're charged with a crime, we turn off all our rational thoughts and we dump them in a different category.

How can people help?

I think voting is very important. I think talking to other people makes a difference. A lot of people have experience in the juvenile system. They just don't want to admit it. Most people get out as fast as they can and they're quite embarrassed. I think it's a huge stigma, and I think to some degree having people stand up and say, 'You know what? I was involved and someone gave me a second chance,' would remove that stigma.

What do you wake up thinking about? Is it specific case or is it a larger concern?

I guess what I think about is that I live a very schizophrenic life. I live a life of privilege in so many ways. I have had an amazing education. My kids are getting an amazing education. I'm an intact family with a supportive husband. My parents are in the area. I've got family. I've got friends. I've got resources. When my kids have needs, I can fill them. I still fret, yet I have so many resources at my fingertips.  And then I go to work and I'm thinking about a whole population of families who are struggling and who have no resources, and nowhere to turn.

Many parents turn to the police because they don't know where else to turn to. They're actually trying to help their child and then a year or two later when their child is swept up in the system and they can't get them out, the guilt they feel. 'Why did I call the police? Why would I have done this to my kid?' They have no idea and they don't have the resources. They don't have the family. Whereas I feel empowered in my world and these people feel disempowered.

Many of them can't advocate for their own kids and I guess I think about how much of my everyday I'm advocating for my kids. And then I have this other world where I think, “Wouldn't it be lovely if these kids I see in my work could have music lessons?” Maybe they're artists or maybe they're budding historians and they’ve never been tapped. How can we change this?

Is there anything new that gives you hope things will change?

I think that some of the more recent research on things like brain development has shifted the whole debate in a way that I would not have envisioned ten years ago. It's not that we didn't know kids were kids and not adults, but there's been substantial research recently with MRIs looking at brain imagery, showing that your brain is not fully developed until you are at least 24 years of age and that the prefrontal lobe is the last area to be fully wired.  The prefrontal lobe controls impulse. So you think about the teenager, the fifteen year olds, hanging out with friends and someone says, 'I've got a good idea' and it's a terrible idea but they all say, 'Okay' and they go for it. They're very peer-oriented. They have no impulse control.

Brain research is largely responsible for these three very important US Supreme Court cases that have come out in the last seven years. Each one of them has emphasized that kids are not adults and they can't be treated like an adult. Now it’s unconstitutional to execute a juvenile for committing a crime.

Now our whole jurisprudence in the highest court of our land has sort of formally recognized what I think practitioners and parents have known forever, but it hasn't been incorporated in the law.

You've won many awards for your advocacy work for juveniles. Which one meant the most and why?

I think the biggest honor I've had is people in the field who I admire so much have said complimentary things to me, and usually it's in private. 'Good work. I'm so glad you did this. I'm so glad you took this on.' I think that to me is so much more meaningful. There are some marvelous people in this field. It's an odd, small niche, but it has attracted some extraordinarily talented individuals and I look up to them so much.

How do you do it all and raise three young children?

Well, one is, I work part-time. I often work full-time for part of the year so I can take more time off with my kids at other parts of the year. That’s been my compromise and that to me is what makes it doable. The other thing that makes it doable as a mom is that I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I'd rather work more hours and have flexibility than work less hours and have no flexibility.

Do you have time to exercise?

I work out at the gym and run the Charles River.  The last couple years I started playing ice hockey. I'm now playing about twice a week, a mom's team and a local team. The school team is called the Ice Sages and the Cambridge team is called the Mother Puckers, which I think tells you which is which.

What is dinner hour like with a young family?

I'm usually home by 6:00. Some days I leave early to pick up kids and do a special outing with one of them. I might do soccer with Sophia or something like that and then come home, and there's a scramble for dinner and then everybody in the family plays hockey. So, there's a lot of driving everywhere and if I haven't exercised in the morning, I'll try to exercise in the evening.

We have a babysitter, so that's a big help. Somebody who's around and making sure they have a snack. And then I often will work at night, which I would say in one sense I like because it's quiet and undisturbed but on the other hand, I'm exhausted. You open up your emails and a big wave of responsibility sweeps over you and you think, 'Oh, no,' but I sort of need to stay on top of things. I would say the biggest sacrifice I've made in recent years is not being able to read as much as I want to read. If I could just sit and read the New Yorker and the newspaper, let alone a novel or a biography, I would love it, but I think that's the one thing that I gave up the most.

What website do you frequent the most each day?

I’m a news junky. I check out The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Times and Washington Post websites many times a day.

Lael Chester is the Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice. Her prior work experience includes both litigating and researching juvenile justice, criminal justice and civil rights issues. She has held positions as the Albert Martin Sacks Clinical Fellow at the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School and as an Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights and Liberties Division of the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General. In June 2011 the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps honored her with its Embracing the Legacy award.  Lael is a graduate of Barnard College and Harvard Law School.