*Editor’s note: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The sirens screeched. Police cars circled the house.
He froze; his feet wouldn’t move.
He watched as his friends hopped a fence and disappeared in the back alley. Heart beating faster, he crawled behind the cushion of the outdoor lounge chair in the back yard of the house he just burglarized.
He was 17 years old, playing a twisted game of hide-and-seek.
The boy hid in a spot that my three-year-old would find, his face covered, adult limbs protruding into the afternoon sunlight. His eyes covered, he childishly believed if he could not see the police then they could not see him either.
A young man whose developmental state resembled a child.
I quickly skimmed his case file. It looked familiar: low IQ, truancy, an open dependency and neglect case, a sick mother and an absentee father. The story of a boy who slid through the holes of a public safety net that was meant to catch him.
A scared boy with a gun, hiding behind a chair cushion.
The police sirens rang. His friends escaped, a loose term to describe his partners in crime. They disappeared without a backward glance. The boy hid behind the chair cushion with a Glock handgun tucked into his waistband.
I sat next to him. His hands and ankles shackled. “Do you know why you are here?” I asked kindly. “You are being charged with second degree burglary and unlawful possession of a firearm.”
His eyes large and vacant, the legal terms floated between us.
“When can I go home?” His voice cracked. The question all juvenile defendants ask as they sit shackled in the courtroom. His face close to mine, I smelled his stale breath.
They are all scared initially, hands and feet bound together. Until the moment their anger swallows their fear, tied together like a string of cattle herded from room to room. At some point, if a human is treated like an animal, a terrifying transformation occurs.
His mother sat crying across the room. He had no record. “He can’t go to jail. This can’t be his story. He bags groceries at the supermarket. He is a nice boy,” she repeated, unable to comprehend the severity of the charges.
I explained. “He had a gun. He had a loaded handgun tucked in the waist of his jeans and he was found in a stranger’s home. He is not going home. He is being charged with a felony.”
The boy in a man’s body told me his story.
He took the bus home from school. Some guys told him they needed cash. They asked him if he wanted some too. He didn’t know their names. He wanted money. It was almost Christmas. His mom needed money.
He wanted friends. He was lonely.
They seemed nice.
They chose a house by the bus route. They would enter through the backdoor and sneak up the steps. Quick money and they’d leave in less than 10 minutes. His “friends” stuck the gun in the waist of his jeans. It was stolen, reported missing in a burglary weeks earlier. Ironically, purchased for protection and swept away in a wave of gang violence.
Afternoon activities differ in different neighborhoods. Defending juveniles, I quickly realized how often Denver burglaries and car thefts are perpetrated by children.
Hitting up houses is an afternoon activity for some kids. Kids who get probation or juvenile detention when they’re 17, but who are blown away when they turn 18, do not pass go, do not collect $200 and go straight to prison.
Juvenile crime that leads to adult recidivism that leads to massive prison overpopulation where there is a gross lack of funding for rehabilitation, which equates to adult recidivism, absentee parents and more juvenile crime. This crisis stems from a broken social safety net, gaping holes, stemming from a failing public educational system, racial inequities, poverty, homelessness, absentee parents, violence, abuse and boredom.
An endless list of societal problems cyclical in nature, where it’s impossible to decipher what is the cause and what is the effect.
What is clear when you spend time in the juvenile courtrooms is:
(1) The majority of juvenile defendants in the criminal justice system have open case files where they are the victims of dependency and neglect.
(2) The majority of juvenile defendants qualify for a public defender, which means they live in poverty.
Crime is less scary when you know the perpetrators.
When you are familiar with the humans behind the crime, you understand that the majority of offenders are not the monsters that haunt your nightmares. Of course there are exceptions, but most defendants are individuals with an unfair lot in life—human beings making horrible choices.
Juvenile crime scares me.
Again the juveniles themselves are not scary, but what scares me is they just don’t understand. Like my four-year old who doesn’t understand that she might get hurt climbing on the furniture. The juvenile defendants don’t understand that a gun is not a toy. They don’t understand that with the slight pull of a trigger finger, someone can die.
They don’t understand the simple concept:
Boy pulls trigger of gun… Victim dies… Death is forever… Boy gets life in prison… Boy is never going home.
Consequences, children just don’t understand. As a parent I repeat, “No climbing on furniture” as an attorney “guns are dangerous” until I become blue in the face, but often become frustrated because my daughter and the juveniles in the courtroom never listen. Sometimes lessons aren’t learned until you hit rock bottom. Sometimes it takes being shackled in a courtroom for a kid to learn (and that may be the best case scenario).
This boy was 17. Just under the wire, a couple months shy of his 18th birthday, he might get juvenile probation or a few months in the county jail when he turns 18. In other words, a second chance, I would fight to get him a second chance.
He sat alone in the courtroom. Tears filled his eyes.
A choice. A gun. A house. A crime.
He hid behind a cushion.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman