By the time she appeared in juvenile court on Friday, January 20, 15-year-old Bresha Meadows had already spent 175 days in a juvenile detention facility. She, her family, and her supporters had hoped that the judge would release her on bond, allowing her to return home to her family while she waits for her trial this spring.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, after conferring with Bresha and the attorneys in her chambers, the juvenile court judge announced that Bresha will be transferred to an adolescent treatment facility for a mental health evaluation.
On July 28, 2016, Bresha, then age 14, was arrested on charges of killing her allegedly abusive father. She spent her 15th birthday in the Trumbull County Juvenile Detention Facility in Warren, Ohio, uncertain whether she would be charged as an adult, which could mean spending the rest of her life in prison if she was found guilty.
In December, prosecutors announced that they would charge her as a juvenile. If convicted, she can be held in juvenile detention until she is 21 years old. At Friday’s hearing, the prosecutor said that his office would not pursue Serious Youthful Offender classification, which would have meant that, if Bresha had problems in the juvenile system, she could be sent to an adult prison after turning 21. Bresha continues to plead “not true” (the juvenile court’s version of “not guilty”) to the charge of aggravated murder.
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Bresha’s paternal aunt, Lena Cooper, disagrees. She continues to say that her brother wasn’t abusive and that Bresha was angry at her father, who had disciplined her for hanging out with older kids. “My niece needs help. She shouldn’t be out walking around.” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer the day before the hearing. “She has psychological problems.”
In an earlier interview with Rewire, Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, stated that the average length of pre-trial detention for juvenile cases is ten to 12 days and, for youth facing adult charges, six months. She also noted the long-lasting effects of detention on young people, including depression and other adverse mental health consequences.
Ian Friedman, Bresha’s attorney, called the day “really strong and encouraging.” He noted that the facility will be much more comfortable and offer more counseling and mental health services than juvenile detention.
Bresha won’t be allowed to come and go from the facility, said her aunt, Martina Latessa, but she anticipates that her niece will be allowed more freedom. Both she and Friedman told Rewire that Bresha is excited about the change.
“She said, ‘I wanna go. I want to talk to someone,'” Latessa, who was able to visit her niece after the hearing, told Rewire.
Though there may be restrictions placed on Bresha, given her charges and pending court date, Latessa said that she will be allowed to wear her own clothes and to go outside, neither of which she can now do in juvenile detention.
“‘I’ll be able to walk around outside. I’ll be able to lay in the grass,'” Latessa recalled her niece saying. In addition, she may be able to receive visits from her older brother and sister, who were not allowed to visit at the detention facility; Friday was the first time Bresha had laid eyes on them since her July arrest.
However, Bresha’s family will have to pay for her stay, which Latessa admits will be a challenge. She says one month at the facility costs more than what she makes in three months. But, she added, “for her well-being, there’s never a price tag.”
Though the change will allow Bresha more movement, supporters point out that she’ll still be confined. “Being sent to a ‘treatment facility’ where she’s not free to come and go means she’s still in jail for all intensive purposes,” said Mariame Kaba in a phone interview with Rewire. Kaba, who is a member of #SurvivedAndPunished, a coalition supporting abuse survivors who have been criminalized or incarcerated, and the #FreeBresha campaign, continued, “Since she’s been arrested, we’ve been calling for the charges against her to be dropped, for her to be able to go home to her family and heal from the trauma, which has been compounded by incarceration.”
“We have to keep our eye on the big picture, which is ultimately an acquittal,” Friedman said. “Bresha is a bright young lady. She understands this.”
During the past 175 days, supporters across the country have sent Bresha letters, cards, and hundreds of books. They’ve also collected nearly 27,000 signatures on a petition calling for the Trumbull County prosecutor, Dennis Watkins, to drop the charges.
The day before the hearing, supporters held a day of action, encouraging people nationwide to organize vigils, teach-ins, and workshops to bring attention to Bresha’s story. They also created Solidarity with Bresha, a virtual wall of resistance where people can post a short message of encouragement for Bresha and other survivors of domestic violence. On January 20, one day after the site’s creation, over 250 messages had already been posted.
“She’s been really touched by the amount of support shows from across the globe,” said Friedman. He and Bresha’s family bring her the letters and the books from supporters. “It’s really easy when you’re incarcerated to feel alone and feel depressed. The support has really been important to her and helped immensely.”
Bresha’s last pre-trial hearing is April 17. If Friedman and the prosecutor’s office can’t reach what Friedman calls “an amicable resolution” to her case, her trial will begin on May 22.