Harsher Treatment for Juveniles
Congress is contemplating a bill designed to compel states to treat juveniles accused of some crimes as adults. If such a bill had been in place five or six years ago, I would likely be in jail today instead of an honor student at Howard University, thinking about career choices after I graduate next year.I engaged in criminal activity when I was a teenager, much of it of the kind some legislators now consider serious enough for 13-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults. At 15, I was charged with attempted murder. The case never came to trial due to lack of evidence, but the truth is I was guilty. If the bill before Congress now had been law, I might never have graduated from high school or gone on to college.I didn't think much about going to jail when I broke the law -- it was certainly never a deterrent. Unlike many of my peers, I wasn't arrested frequently. Just once for possession of narcotics for sale, once for possession of arms. And there was the attempted murder charge.Though I understood right from wrong, at 15 I did not understand the consequences of this distinction. Take the day I was driving to my uncle's house to get my brakes fixed. As I turned the corner to pull into his driveway, I saw a man I believed had stolen money from my home.We had attempted to find this man, but he had disappeared. In fact, I had begun to forget about him when he appeared in front of my uncle's house, right in between my headlights.I hit the gas. He tried to jump out of the way. I hit him on his side, and he was thrown to the ground. The car crashed into my uncle's house. I leaped out and chased him. Somehow he got up and ran, but when he woke the next morning, he was paralyzed, a condition that lasted for some time.I went on as if nothing had happened, upset mostly at having to go to the hospital to check my own injuries and because the car was totaled. When the District Attorney's office announced I would be charged with attempted murder, I was stunned. This possibility had never occurred to me.Stunned, but not scared. No witnesses would cooperate, and the prosecution didn't want to go to court with only the word of a victim who had a laundry list of convictions. The case was dropped -- and I continued my life of crime. In fact, it wasn't until my senior year in high school that I began to realize the long-term consequences of my acts. I began to notice that not too many people retired or even prospered doing what I did. Rather, death or imprisonment were the most-traveled roads.Around this time, I enrolled in an African-American studies class -- the first class in two years I attended regularly. This course held my interest. I became intrigued with my history.I also became involved with the Omega Boys Club, a mentorship program in San Francisco for current and formerly incarcerated youth. My football play improved and I got more serious about my studies.The principle factor in my transformation was not only a change in attitude but an awakening to the future -- something I had never considered before, something I would never have had a chance to consider without the social programs that reached me in those years.Soon, there was no more time to run in the streets. I went to school, to practice, to Boys Club meetings, to lecture to young people traveling the same path I once followed. I wrote for a youth newspaper and took a night class to catch up. Looking back at that period now, I realize I was undergoing "rehabilitation" -- a term our legislators have already removed from the state's penal code.Today, most of the guys I hung out with are now serving long prison terms. Those who get out mostly go right back in less than a year. Inside, they learn more about crime and make new connections.What worked for me was discovering there were alternatives. I was given opportunity. I was allowed to hope.