When you have very few advantages in life, your mistakes can become bigger than life. On the other end of the spectrum your options are multiplied when resources are available to deal with the repercussions of mistakes. Nowhere is that more evident than in American courtrooms. The result for many of the less fortunate is more prison time and less leniency. Time away from family, work and the opportunity for education and training.
I was stunned a few years ago when I learned that a 14 year old child in Louisiana is automatically charged as an adult in very specific circumstances. It took time for that to sink in. And the racial disparities are stark. In Louisiana the result is practically a death sentence. If he’s black or brown the story is simple “. . . he never had a chance”.
We take for granted that children will be children. They will explore the limits and boundaries set by a civilized society. We also take for granted that children will be cared for and protected by the adults in a civilized society. That isn’t true for all children. Despite troves of evidence, America doesn’t want to admit that we are a people who criminalize being young and brown or black. Why? We live in a world where truth and facts have become white noise. That white noise has been accepted as a natural part of American life. That white noise always leaves a huge hole in the lives of the people left to fend for themselves – usually behind bars.
Who advocates for a child charged as an adult? Some adults actually fare better. Roy Moore had a president. Brett Kavanaugh had eleven senators. The child has a lawyer. The choice is between a lawyer who could easily charge as much as $100,000 (half paid up front as a retainer) and a public defender. That’s the protection. That’s the cost a young black boy pays to be cared for. The wrong attorney or no money means he never had a chance.
He sat in jail for eleven months before speaking with an attorney.
The criminalization begins before the child is born. His life is a matter of opportunity. That opportunity is directly related to the education and opportunities of his parents. When parents can’t master the America we live in, can’t see the big picture, he never has a chance. That is where poverty begins. Poverty is far more than economics.
Young people 14 – 17 years old make poor decisions. To most Americans, they’re still children. Yes, some have driving permits and part-time jobs. At 14 some even look like grown men and women. Their world is usually all about what they want. Because they’re immature children.
I know the story all too well. In 1994, a young family member was sentenced to life in prison. He made poor choices when it came to friends. He was rebellious. His rebellion led to delinquency. His friends were like him – with similar attitudes about family and authority. He would not come home at times. Before long he was smoking marijuana, then participating in petty crimes. All leading to involvement in final, fatal robbery.
He never had a chance. He sat in jail for eleven months before speaking with an attorney. Needless to say, he spoke to the police long before he had a conversation with an attorney.
Because America criminalizes so many so young we must take a closer look at our approach. The criminalization seems more prevalent among the most impoverished. Poverty defines advocacy. But who advocates for the young. Nelson Mandela was clear when he said “. . . overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Policing strategies in communities across the country appear to target the poor. The bail system favors those with financial means. Felony convictions all but eliminate the opportunity to rise above a mistake . . . to participate in our democratic process and the promise of a prosperous future.
In this era of criminalization, of mandatory minimum sentencing, we are all obliged to be the catalyst for change. We must revisit our view of accountability. Is it time to move away from the arbitrary use of incarceration, especially for children, as the principle form of accountability?
All Americans should have the same access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Surely the meaning of these “unalienable rights” has evolved over the centuries since their introduction. Maybe today’s interpretation should be more about how we collectively balance freedom with responsibility.
We have a responsibility to children to help them develop a true sense of well-being, inner prosperity and fulfillment. That is what defines life. A full life is the foundation of freedom. Poverty is a powerful threat to living that kind of life. We have a responsibility to ensure that our children’s concept of freedom does not equate with license to do anything they want. We must ensure they understand the need to balance freedom with responsibility.
We’re also responsible for helping children understand that having more “stuff” isn’t the measure of happiness. Helping children understand the impact of their dedication to a cause greater than oneself is our responsibility. Maybe then, the happiness they seek would be based in working toward the greater good of society.
Collectively, we must gravitate toward enriching the lives of the most vulnerable – children. Lifting children out of poverty must be every adult’s dedication to the greater good. Impacting poverty eliminates the need to treat children as adults in criminal courts. Let’s enrich their lives from the start rather than fail at rehabilitation later.