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Cedric Lofton, still photo courtesy KSN News 3

Cedric “CJ” Lofton was murdered last September while in custody at the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC) in Wichita, Kansas.

CJ, a 17-year-old Black high school student, was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was restrained in the prone position for more than 30 minutes, with the weight of grown adults pressing upon his body, causing cardiopulmonary stress that resulted in his death two days later.

Editor’s Note: Autopsy results have determined Cedric’s death was a homicide, but Sedgwick County Attorney Marc Bennett said Tuesday that the state’s “stand-your-ground” law prevented him from filing charges.

As a youth in foster care dealing with family loss and separation, he should have received  compassion and support when he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead, he was killed by the people charged with his safety.

CJ Lofton is more than a hashtag.  He is more than a statistic.  He was a young Black man whose life was stolen from him by people whose jobs are valued more highly than his safety―an all-too-familiar refrain in America.

As Youth Leaders with Progeny, a youth/adult partnership working to transform the youth justice system in Kansas, we have watched the conversation about CJ’s death unfold in our community, and we are discouraged and angry.

We are beyond tired of watching people in leadership talk about what is best for young people instead of listening to us and our firsthand experiences.

None of us knew CJ. But any of us could have ended up in that situation.

That’s why we seek the abolition of youth incarceration and criminalization, and increased investment in the services and programs young people need to thrive.

Police became involved when  CJ’s foster father called for assistance. But police should not be the first or only resource available when a family needs support navigating a mental health crisis.

CJ should never have been taken to the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center (JIAC).

He should have been taken to a mental health facility.

The response to young people who need support should be compassionate care, not punishment, restraint, and harm.   A call for help should never result in death, particularly at the hands of those who are paid to serve and protect us.

CJ’s murder suggests that it is safer to suffer in silence than to call for help.

His death reinforces the feeling that we cannot trust law enforcement or corrections staff.  It is outrageous that Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennet decided not to file criminal charges, and we are appalled by such blatant disregard for CJ’s life. He essentially appointed himself as the judge in this case, while attempting to publicly wash his hands of any legal or moral responsibility.

Unjust laws only change when courageous people are willing to challenge them, including attorneys who can choose to fight for the Court and the public to acknowledge the harm caused by a particular law.

We cannot keep telling young people that it is perfectly acceptable for adults in uniforms – khaki or otherwise –  to cause them physical harm.

Facilities like JIAC are not safe or trauma-informed environments, where young people can heal. If staff are not accountable for murder, what else is happening in these facilities that we don’t know about?

When calling out for help results in punishment and detainment, it’s no surprise that three out of four youth in U.S. detention centers suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues.

This response, coupled with the fact that systemic issues are catalyzing the mental health crises faced by young people, only worsens racial disparities.

Statistics show that Black youth are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white peers.

Instead of continuing to waste large sums of money incarcerating youth, leaders should be providing young people with resources and programs they need to heal, including community services, mental health programs, and more.

The Mess Created by Adults

Young people suffer the consequences of the messes created by adults.

We believe the adults who hold decision-making power within the institutions that affect young people’s lives must do better.

Here’s how to begin the healing process in our community

Some might ask: how can we possibly close all juvenile corrections facilities?  Where would we put all the repeat offenders?

Our answer is not complicated.  We believe in the creative power of people motivated to do what is right.  It is time for us to imagine a society that does not rely on control, domination, and dehumanization, and to build systems that nurture healing and restoration.

We call on lawmakers to set a date for the closure of these juvenile corrections facilities. And in the meantime, we call on them to increase access to crisis care services and restorative justice initiatives.

Develop a plan to open residential care homes as outlined in Progeny’s 2021 report, From Harm to Healing: The Blueprint to Healthier Outcomes for Kansas Youth.

We cannot continue to fail our youth by leaving them with nobody to call during a mental health crisis, and we cannot allow another young person to lose their life when they just needed help.

We will not stop fighting for justice in CJ’s case.

We want further investigation to find out why this happened to CJ. We cannot allow his death to be in vain. We are inviting other young people and their families to share their experiences within the juvenile justice system in Kansas.

If you have a story to share, please feel free to visit our website and upload your story, or contact us at progenyict@gmail.com.

Jazmine Rogers and Emily Powers are Youth Leaders with Progeny, a youth justice organization based in Wichita, KS. This piece reflects insights from the team of Progeny Youth Leaders regarding the in-custody death of CJ Lofton.

This content was originally published here.

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