I Could Have Been a Child Killer Sentenced to Life in Prison
I was 12 years old when I aimed my grandmother’s .22 handgun at my Uncle Cricket. I had no idea that the criminal justice system might treat me as a murderer. I was just a kid who was scared for my life and overwhelmed with my uncle’s years-long verbal and emotional abuse against me and my grandmother who was raising me.
Minutes before, I was sitting on the sofa in the living room of my childhood home in Detroit, watching Uncle Cricket and grandmother engage in a heated argument about his increasingly out-of-control drug habit. He had threatened us with violence for years. Hearing him tell her to “Suck my dick, bitch!” was very common. When he wasn’t stealing, he was walking around the house menacing us. He threatened me with violence, too. People he owed money to would knock on our front door regularly, which brought his dangerous lifestyle to our doorstep. My grandmother had had enough. Two other friends in the room begged him to get help, but my uncle paid them no mind. In the middle of the argument, he said, “I know what I'm 'a do” and quickly ran down into the basement where he lived.
I was sure he was going to get his gun so he could kill us.
I rushed to get the .22 from under the cushion of the sofa my grandmother was sitting on, took my position in the middle of the living room and aimed the gun at the basement door entrance. I was ready to kill him. He would never have dared act this way when my Uncle Randy had been alive. I saw Uncle Randy pistol-whip Uncle Cricket severely for getting out of line once. But Uncle Randy had died a year earlier. Not too long after his death, as I wrote recently in an article for BuzzFeed, my grandmother gave me a gun and told me I was now the "man of the house.”
After she told me that, I felt like I didn’t have a right to live as a boy any more. I was a man, she needed me to be a man, and if a man had to kill to take care of his family, so be it.
When Uncle Cricket emerged, gun in hand, I was ready to prove my manhood and put an end to the years of pain he had inflicted on us. But before I could pull the trigger, one of our friends rushed toward me and snatched the gun out of my hand.
Uncle Cricket ended up on the front porch of our home with his gun pointed at his head, threatening to kill himself, until a local cop appeared and talked him out of it. He checked into a mental health facility for a year, but started smoking crack again soon after returning to our home. My grandmother and I dealt with his abuse until her death, one month after I finished high school. He overdosed in 2013.
I was lucky that friend was there to stop me from pulling the trigger. Right now, I could have easily been one of the 350 people in Michigan currently serving life sentences for murders they committed at age 17 or younger. In 2014, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that juvenile lifers have to serve the rest of their sentences, despite a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that sentencing teens to life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment.
Nationwide, more than 3,000 children are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, according to the Equal Justice initiative. It’s hard to believe all of these people need to be in jail for the rest of their lives, or that they all knew exactly what they were doing when they committed their crimes. Or that they can’t be rehabilitated eventually if given the proper care. It’s true that some of these people committed terrible crimes as children and still need to be kept in environments where they can’t hurt people. But I’m sure that many of these prisoners had no clue what taking or harming a life truly meant when they were so young. I know I didn’t. For many children, the soundtrack of indiscriminate gang bullets whizzing by and having to punch and kick your way to and from school is so normal that addressing a problem with a violent reaction seems like a logical choice.
A 2012 Sentencing Project study found that 79 percent of juvenile lifers were exposed to violence in their homes and more than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods. Both findings fit my childhood. My uncles sold drugs from our home, so I was exposed to the violent nature of their trade on a daily basis, including being held at gunpoint by stick-up crews stealing their drugs. I watched my uncles and other close friends and relatives resolve many of their conflicts through violence. At times, that violence was lethal. It’s hard to grow up in such an environment and not have it affect how you react to problems in your life, at least until your brain fully matures.
When our legal system decides how to deal with a young person who has killed, it has to consider how that child’s environment formed his morals and rationale. Equally important, it has to figure out ways to help that child from a mental health standpoint and not a criminal one.
Catherine and Curtis Jones are two clear examples of people who needed therapy, not a prison sentence. As children, they were tried and convicted as adults in Brevard County, Fla., on Aug. 16, 1999, after they plotted to kill their father and his girlfriend earlier that year because they believed the two allowed a family member to molest them repeatedly, according to USA Today. The children successfully killed the girlfriend but didn’t manage to kill their father or the family member. Catherine was 13. Curtis was 12.
In a 2009 letter to a USA Today reporter, Catherine wrote that she regretted taking a life, but admitted that prison was better than the molestation she endured. "At one point I was just so happy to be away," she said. "I know that sounds, like, really messed up, but there was a point where I was just away from all that and I was by myself and I was safe."
Some may find Catherine’s logic "messed up," but I find it unfortunately understandable. She was a child forced to fend off a child molester. Alone. All too many children like Catherine and Curtis find themselves in that situation. The Associated Press published an investigation, in December, revealing that at least 786 children died of neglect or abuse over a six-year period while child protective services had good reason to know they were in danger.
That Sentencing Project study also found that 77 percent of girls sentenced to life in prison were sexually abused; overall, more than 20 percent of juveniles serving life sentences were sexually abused.
USA Today reported that Florida authorities were aware of the abuse Catherine and Curtis experienced at the hands of the family member, but failed to help them. The family member accused of abusing the kids was later convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Left on their own, Catherine and Curtis Jones did what their under-developed minds told them was best: to kill their abuser. In return, the state that failed to protect them tried them as adults and forced them to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Instead of providing them years of therapy with a child psychiatrist, the state sentenced them to decades in prison.
This isn’t justice. It’s heartless cruelty.
I’m not sure how I would have turned out had I pulled that trigger and killed my uncle. I certainly don’t believe I would have gone on to finish college, complete graduate school, live in Europe and end up becoming a journalist writing about criminal justice. Perhaps I would be in prison instead of writing this article. Or I might be relatively lucky and be looking forward to leaving prison on early release this summer, like Catherine is expected to, had I pled to a lesser charge. Either way, I don’t believe tossing me in the criminal justice system and throwing away the key would have helped, especially since research proves that harsh sentencing doesn’t reduce recidivism for those who manage to be released from prison.
In America, it’s hard for many of us to believe that not all terrible acts of violence committed by children are crimes that need the harshest punishment. What good does it do to warehouse thousands of children in the criminal justice system when the state could simply provide them with therapeutic treatment that has been proven to reduce recidivism?
Besides the morality of it, dealing with violent child offenders from a mental health standpoint saves the government a lot of money. A 2015 Justice Policy Institute study finds that incarcerating youth can cost taxpayers at least $8 billion per year (around $148,767 per person per year), if you consider the costs of housing an offender and jail versus the loss of revenue when these young people aren’t working.
In the eyes of the rest of the world, America’s cruelty is seen as shameful. We’re the only nation on earth that sentences children to life without parole. It makes no sense, morally or fiscally, to jail young offenders when states can provide therapy-based programming to make them emotionally healthy contributors to society instead of burdens on it.
As I’m typing this article from my studio in Brooklyn, I can remember feeling the tremors of fear running through my arms as I pointed the gun at my uncle. In my 12-year-old mind, I didn’t feel like I was going to murder another human being. I just wanted to get rid of my pain, the best way I knew how, through violence. I’m lucky someone was there to stop me.
But even if luck hadn’t intervened, I believe that my act of violence would have been treated best by a therapist who saw me as a victim, not a prosecutor hellbent on convicting a murderous criminal.