LEXINGTON — Xavier McElrath-Bey was arrested 19 times and had 7 convictions by age 11.
At 13 years old, he was convicted of a gang-related murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Now, he is a Senior Adviser and National Advocate for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in Washington, D.C., advocating for legislative changes for juvenile life sentences without parole.
McElrath-Bey was in Oklahoma Wednesday as the closing speaker for the Oklahoma Children’s Court Improvement Conference in Norman. He also went that morning to the Joseph Harp Correctional Center to speak with staff and youthful inmates in Lexington, Oklahoma.
McElrath-Bey compared his life to a runaway train that wouldn’t stop. At one of his court hearings, the state’s attorney told the judge McElrath-Bey would never change his behavior, and he deserved life in prison.
“Hearing that, I did believe it,” McElrath-Bey said. “I believed I would never change.”
In prison, McElrath-Bey kept getting into trouble. He did not participate in the programs at his juvenile facility. He was later moved to an adult prison that could better address his needs.
“At 18, I went to the worst prison in the state of Illinois and was 300 feet from death row,” McElrath-Bey said.
He recalled thinking he had hit his lowest point and thrown his life away. That is, until he saw a death row inmate not much older than he always playing basketball alone.
“I realized he was the one at rock bottom, not me,” McElrath-Bey said. “If I stayed out of trouble, I could get out in my mid-20s, and that was my turning point.”
McElrath-Bey left his gang and began surrounding himself with positive people. He earned two associate’s degrees and a Bachelor of Social Science during his incarceration.
To JHCC staff, he recounted the impact his public defender, the prison volunteers and the prison pastor had on him. He commended JHCC staff for their role in positively affecting JHCC’s male youthful inmates.
“Even just a little bit of care can make a big difference in their lives,” McElrath-Bey said.
Once released, McElrath-Bey began speaking at conferences, schools and juvenile detention facilities as part of the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice initiative. He worked as a Starbucks barista while attending Roosevelt University and graduated with a Master of Arts in Human Services in 2006.
Soon after speaking with JHCC staff, McElrath-Bey met privately with eight male youthful inmates. He told them his story and encouraged them to support each other positively.
“I reminded them that nothing in here matters, except what is transferable into free society,” McElrath-Bey said. “Whether that is an education, better character, values, beliefs or strong relationships, those are what people will notice and talk about once they get out.”
McElrath-Bey said most of the more than 2,500 youthful offenders nationwide sentenced to life without parole come from negative environments. Many experience weekly violence at home or in their communities, or are victims of sexual abuse. McElrath-Bey did a TED Talk on the subject in 2014 called “No Child Is Born Bad” at Northwestern University.
“A lot of their behavior is a manifestation of trauma from their childhoods,” McElrath-Bey said. “Sadly, they get to a point where they are growing and maturing, and the question becomes what do we meet them with? Do we meet them with an environment that cares for them and helps them grow and change? Or do we simply say they are throw aways or super predators and throw away the key?”
McElrath-Bey has been a part of more than six states’ legislative reforms that allow for re-sentencing youthful offenders after an agreed upon number of years.
With his story, he hopes to inspire youthful offenders to fight and advocate for themselves while incarcerated.
“I want them to know their lives have value, and there are people who are fighting on their behalf,” McElrath-Bey said. “I could tell by their eyes that gave them some hope that they won’t die in here.”
ODOC’s Region I Director, Millicent Newton Embry, called McElrath-Bey’s message inspiring, and one that comes at a critical time in Oklahoma’s criminal justice history.
“I believe Xavier’s message to the inmates may resonate with them and encourage them through him sharing his life experiences,” Newton-Emrby said. “I hope his sharing of the road map of his early life and incarceration will provide them a new sense of hope and belief in their own possibilities.”