Xavier McElrath-Bey was told at 13 that he was incorrigible. Xavier didn’t even know the meaning of the word, but it was part of the argument his probation officer made when urging a juvenile court judge to transfer his case to the adult criminal justice system for his involvement in a murder. Xavier had been arrested 19 times by then. The arrests began when he was only 9. “I look back now at some of the things I did,” he said, “and I can’t believe any child would do them.” Xavier’s public defender knew his behaviors were not the result of a flaw inherent in him. He was a child who had experienced extreme poverty, which meant that frequently, he and his siblings did not have food. He experienced violence at home and abuse from a foster parent. He sought family in a gang. Xavier served 13 years in prison. While there, he earned a college degree, transformed into a different person, and dedicated his life to the victim in his case. “I am nothing like the person I used to be,” he stated.
Xavier, 39, is proof that kids grow and change. Xavier recently joined the CFSY as our youth justice advocate. A restorative justice practitioner, Xavier most recently worked for a longitudinal study of the mental health needs, service utilization, and outcomes of formerly incarcerated youth at Northwestern University, where he conducted more than 800 clinical field interviews. He previously worked in Chicago as the juvenile justice diversion program coordinator for Alternatives, Inc., as a Catholic Charities street intervention specialist with children in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where he grew up, and as a cease-fire outreach worker. Outside of work, Xavier works with young people in Chicago to help them avoid involvement in the criminal justice system. He has worked to develop a network of formerly incarcerated youth and has been active in state coalitions working to eliminate extreme sentences for children.
Xavier also has featured in a number of media stories about the impact of extreme sentences on children. A video released last year in which he talks about his experience and the need to end life-without-parole sentences for children has been viewed more than 40,000 times on YouTube. He delivered a TEDx talk in early 2014 at Northwestern University. “My involvement in this effort has given me hope and helped me believe that we can make a difference,” Xavier said. “My ultimate goal is to help change the face of youth offenders. I want people to understand that kids are just kids and anyone who grows up in such circumstances can fall victim to these bad choices. I know I was once that kid and I know if I can change, they can too.”