Murder, armed robbery, rape, and assault with a deadly weapon were some of the charges being faced by the young men I spent time with yesterday (Saturday, April 26, 2014) while at the Sacramento County Juvenile Detention Facility. I sat and listened to them, hugged and dapped them, talked trash to them, laughed with them, gave them pointers on exercise, played basketball with them, and just built rapport. The time was huge in helping me to correlate many events and feelings I’ve faced as a child and as an adult.
As much as I hurt for the victims of the crimes these young men are charged with, I also hurt and want for these young men. For the most part, I related to their stories from my own childhood or from time spent in communities I’ve lived as an adult. I believe love and structure will do so much more for them and society than punishment and incarceration. This is separate from the justice, compensation, and help clearly needed for the victims of the charges.
Some of the young men reminded me of myself as an adolescent and I told them that the difference between me being where I am versus having to also struggle through the situation they’re in might simply be because I was a faster runner than some of the friends I grew up with and those friends didn’t “rat” me out when they got caught by the police. Today, I’m frequently viewed as a clean-cut, no non-sense, up and coming leader in a Fortune 20 company. And that is an accurate description of who I am and how I carry myself at work. It’s also frequently assumed that I was reared in a middle-class house with both parents who owned a vehicle, benefited from a private school education, and was an A-B student in school. All of those are incorrect assumptions.
Despite not liking what I heard from some of the young men at juvenile hall, I related to what was shared with me. Minus most of the violent acts I could personally associate in some way. Before the age of 14, I had plenty of experience with the wrong side of the law including criminal damage to property, petty theft, underage drinking, drug possession, and one near-reported instance of breaking and entering and attempted rape. I was lucky in avoiding a police record.
The summer following 7th grade, I was caught shoplifting in a K-Mart. Luckily the store officer was also a local police officer who recognized me as one of the better athletes from my All-Star baseball team and I was released to my mom. At the time, I thought being released to the police was far better than being released to my mom… and so did my behind after getting home. Less than 6 months later I was questioned by police following significant property damage to cars from rocks being thrown at a train transporting the vehicles. There simply wasn’t enough evidence to establish a case against me or any of the other potential co-defendants, but again, that didn’t save me from my mom but it saved me from a police record. The summer following 8th grade, I was shipped to Flint, MI to be with my uncle who was serving in the US Army. Most of my childhood mates weren’t so lucky to have such an outlet.
Looking back at my poor choices as a child, I believe a 2014 version of me could very easily be one of the young men that I visited yesterday. In contrasting my adolescence with the young men I spent time with yesterday and guys I grew up with, I found (non-scientific assessment) a few things of note. 1. To a person, they had an “initial” recorded contact with police before they ever got to their current crimes to get them in juvenile hall. 2. One of their early contacts, was for something that my 17 year old son or others in my upper middle class community could have easily dismissed with a “low cost” attorney, 3. They remained in or were returned the same home environment and/or community following their initial contact with police, and 4. Having no mature or positive outlet to communicate and work through emotional and mental stress without drugs. Other symptoms include growing up in homes with a single or no birth parent, low-incomes, failing grades, contact with foster care system, access to guns, and incarceration of family members.
Regardless of social situations and personal circumstances, we’re a nation of laws and it’s absolutely appropriate to hold people accountable for their actions. Thus I’m more focused on actions that can be taken to prevent or reduce the likelihood of children getting to a point where such serious crimes seem to be an acceptable option based on illogical thinking or external influences. Regardless of the outcome of the current charges being faced, most of these young men will some day be released and it’s to all of our financial benefit (tax dollars) and personal safety (future crime potential) that their return to society is much improved from the life they lived before being incarcerated. And who knows, maybe, just maybe they did not commit the crime they’ve been charged with. As far fetched and unbelievable that might be to some, I had a personal experience of advocating for a young man in 2005 where the police clearly got the wrong person and a high school student was wrongly incarcerated for 5 months.
My hope is we (American society) will work more diligently to 1. stop escalating the criminalization of American children for minor crimes which typically become learning lessons for those above working class incomes, 2. redirect children and their families to community service and improvement projects that include counseling versus places of incarceration following “contact” with police, and 3. treat drug usage more as a mental or medical condition versus a criminal act. Though, I don’t believe these steps alone will stop the criminal activity of all children, I’m confident they will result in more cases of career leaders and fewer prisoners. Essentially, I think our country greatly benefits by having more 40 somethings like me who were lucky than to be caught in a rotating door of a criminal justice system that hurts tax payers, brings little to no benefit to our economy, and potentially threatens the safety of others.
I also encourage others to seek the experience I had yesterday. I’m going back and could use the help of many others to do the same across the nation.