Note: The characters and facts of this story are fictional.
The police found him hiding behind the cushion of an outdoor lounge chair. A seventeen-year old kid, who looked more like a man than a child. Sirens sounded and he crawled behind the cushion of a lounge chair in the backyard of the house he had broken in to.
He was caught in a twisted version of hide-and-seek. Scared, he hid. He hid in a spot that my three-year-old would choose, face covered, adult limbs protruding in the sunlight. Like a child his face hidden from view – if he couldn’t see out then maybe they couldn’t see in.
If I can’t see you then you can’t see me.
I read his case file. Low IQ, IEP, truancy, sick mother, abusive father, a boy lost in the system.
A young man, whose developmental state was that of a young child.
A boy – hidden, scared, and with a gun.
They heard the sirens. His friends ran, a loose term to describe his partners in crime. They ran, hopped a fence and disappeared. But the boy hid. He 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 grew large. The legal terms floating in the air around us.
“When can I go home?” his voice cracked. I could smell his breath as he spoke.
His mother was crying across the room. He had no record. “This can’t be right. He can’t go to jail. This can’t be his story. He is a nice boy,” she repeated.
I tried to explain – to the boy, to his mother. “You had a gun. You had a handgun in your jeans, and you were found in a stranger’s home. You are not going home. This is serious. You are being charged with a felony.”
I spoke to the boy in a man’s body. He told me his story.
He took the bus home from school. Some guys told him they needed cash. They asked him if he wanted to get some cash. The boy agreed. He didn’t know their names. He wanted money. His mom needed money. He wanted friends. He was lonely. He did not understand.
They chose a house by the bus route. They would enter through the backdoor and sneak up the steps. They would leave in under ten minutes. His “friends” stuck the gun in the waist of his jeans. It was stolen, reported missing in a burglary weeks earlier. Purchased for protection and swept away in a wave of gang violence.
Afternoon activities differ in different neighborhoods. Working with 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. These kids who will get probation or 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 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 and more juvenile crime. This crisis stems from a broken social safety net, which includes a failing public educational system, racial inequities, poverty, homelessness, absentee parents, violence, abuse, boredom, amongst many other social ills. An endless list of societal problems that are cyclical where it becomes impossible to decipher where lies the cause and where 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 the public defender, which means they live in poverty.
Crime is less scary when you are familiar with the perpetrators. When you become acquainted 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 get that climbing on the furniture may cause her to fall and get hurt. The juvenile defendants don’t understand that a gun is not a prop. 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, kids don’t get them. As a parent I repeat, “No climbing on furniture” as an attorney “Guns are dangerous. Stay out of trouble” 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 a kid is sitting in shackles in a courtroom to learn (and that is the best case scenario).
This boy was seventeen. Just under the wire, a couple months shy of his eighteenth birthday, he might get juvenile probation, a few months in the county jail when he turns 18, 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.