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Children's Voice Article, March/April, 2005

Conversation with a Child Betrayed

By Hank Mattimore
The last time I saw Paul was in a dinky cell at Juvenile Hall in Sonoma County, California. 1 It was hard to believe this 15-year-old baby-faced kid and his buddy had broken into an older woman's home, tied her up, and demanded that she tell them where she was hiding her money.
When the frightened woman would not respond, one of the boys (it was never clear which one) beat the victim with her own cane. They left the house with a small amount of cash and some credit cards. Fortunately, the woman was able to untie herself, received treatment for her bruises, and eventually testified at the pre-trial hearing.

Paul and his 17-year-old bud, a registered gang member, were arrested the next day trying to use the woman's credit cards. Paul was never more than a gang wannabe. Both boys were charged with aggravated assault and robbery. The district attorney, intent on making an example of them, insisted they be tried as adults. On the advice of their public defender, who feared they could receive life imprisonment if the case went to trial, both boys pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 20 years in maximum-security adult prison.

I looked at the kid sitting across from me in his prison sweats and tried to picture him in 20 years. He doesn't even shave yet, I thought to myself. He will have his first shave in prison.

But the things he will never experience, anywhere, hit home with me--the senior prom, graduating with his class from high school, the satisfaction that comes with earning a first paycheck, moving into his own apartment for the first time. What a waste of a young life.

"Paul, what was going on in your head when you broke into that old lady's house?"

"I don't know. We weren't trying to hurt her. We just needed to buy stuff to eat."

"Are you sorry for what you did?"

"Yeah, it was wrong. We shouldn't have hurt her. It just sort of happened." I looked at him again, trying to figure out this boy.

I had been a volunteer mentor for Paul the last two years. I thought I knew him. I guess I didn't know him at all. "Paul, do you have any idea what 20 years looks like?"

"Oh, it won't be so bad. I figure to be out when I'm 35. You know my girlfriend Carrie? She said she'd wait for me."

My God, I thought, this is scary. He has no idea of what's in store for him. He'll be in prison for more years than he has been alive, but it hasn't dawned on him. I asked him if he was a little bit scared about being locked up in an adult prison with hardened adult felons. I tried to put it as delicately as I could. "Young guys like you can be preyed upon by the older guys. I guess you know that."

"Nah," he answered with adolescent bravado, "I can take care of myself." I looked at the peach fuzz on his cheeks and his slight build. I didn't want to tell him that kids in adult correctional facilities are raped five times more frequently than they are at juvenile institutions, or that the suicide rate for juveniles in adult prisons is eight times the rate for kids in juvenile facilities. I would just pray he would survive his sentence.

The 15-year-old who is so sure he can take care of himself does not yet realize he will no longer be in juvie. He has graduated prematurely from the juvenile justice system. Its protections are no longer there for him. In the last 10 years, we have seen a dramatic change in the way we deal with juvenile criminals--45 states have passed laws making it easier to try defendants younger than 18 in adult courts.

Spurred by a few high profile cases of heinous crimes committed by children, politicians have responded by casting aside the hard-won wisdom that has governed our juvenile justice system for decades, that kids should be treated differently than adults. Like the out-of-control Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, we have put reason aside and shout, "Off with their head!"

Paul and kids like him are boys being made to play a man's game. Is that fair? Of course he should be held accountable for what he did, but a kid should not be treated as an adult. The neuro-scientists confirm what we already knew from life experience--the juvenile brain is not fully developed until at least 18 years of age. This is particularly true of the part of the brain that controls impulse and aggression.

If this is true of normal teenagers, how much truer is it of kids who have themselves been abused or neglected as children? Doesn't it make sense to recognize that these kids have diminished culpability because of their often tragic life experiences?

When a child is born prematurely, we're smart enough to take that into consideration as she grows up. It takes her longer to catch up with her peers who came to term. Very often, the perpetrators of juvenile crime have been victims of abuse that have medically disrupted their cognitive and emotional development.

Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group of medical professionals, is highly critical of our return to a tougher policy toward juvenile offenders:
Harsh punishment, from incarceration to the death penalty, has eclipsed concern for rehabilitation, accountability, and the health and growth of the whole child. Awareness of young people as "works in progress" whose ongoing development, mental health, and physical well-being are crucial to their own and society's future has been overtaken by the political expedience of retribution. 2
I turned my attention to the boy across from me. To me, he was a poster child for a system in crisis. Product of an abusive home, he was taken away from his addicted mother at age 6. His father was a truck driver with no name who had had a one-night stand with Paul's teen-age mother. Paul's sole male role model was his mother's boyfriend, who sexually abused him. Paul went from group home to group home through the years, like some kind of child yo-yo.

Despairing of finding a group home that he wouldn't run away from, the court eventually released Paul to the custody of his mom. Once again, she was unable to handle her son and told him to find another place to live. He did, on the streets. Living under a bridge and crashing at friends' houses, it was just a matter of time before he fell in with a gang. They gave him a false sense of family. His "girlfriend," an 18-year-old, became the mother he never really had.

He had even taken to calling her "Mom."

I pondered the what ifs in this kid's life. What if more resources had been put into helping his mother put her drug habit behind her and become a better parent? What if the system had offered professional mental health counseling to both mother and son? What if Paul had been enrolled early on in a Head Start or similar program?

Why do we as a society think it's a better investment to spend $40,000 a year to lock up a kid in prison for 20 years (do the math, $800,000) instead of putting a fraction of that money into early intervention programs? And if we have to resort to incarcerating kids, for God's sake, let's be humane enough to put them in juvenile correctional facilities, not adult prisons.

All this was academic now. I rose to leave the boy who had entered my life for such a short time but who would haunt my memory. I gave Paul a hug and told him that I loved him and promised to visit him in prison. He said, "Yeah, could you bring me some money when you come. They tell me you need money in prison to buy cigarettes and candy and stuff."

He still didn't get it. I didn't expect he would. After all, Paul is still just a kid.

A long-time advocate for the rights of children, Hank Mattimore is Chair of the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission, Santa Rosa, California.  
  1. Not his real name.
  2. See "Health and Justice for Youth Project".

Off With Their Heads!

In the last 20 years, juvenile justice has turned away from prevention, education, and rehabilitation and moved toward incarceration as the solution to youth violence. According to Juvenile Justice Magazine, the United States is now the world leader in incarcerating youth.

Fortunately, Paul eventually was transferred to a California Youth Authority facility after several months in an adult prison. But tens of thousands of juveniles are still tried as adults and are doing time in adult prisons.
  • In 1996, an estimated 260,000 children younger than 18 were prosecuted as adults. (Stop Prisoner Rape, Juveniles in Adult Facilities Are Vulnerable to Sexual Assault, www.spr.org)

  • In 1997, nearly 14,000 juveniles were admitted to state adult prisons and, on any given day, some 14,500 youth were housed in adult facilities. (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2000, Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails: A National Assessment, www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/bja/182503.pdf)

  • Nearly 10% of incarcerated youth are confined in adult facilities. (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Transfer: Sending Children to Adult Criminal Court, www.juvjustice.org/resources/fs008.html)

  • The portion of the brain that controls and suppresses impulses and is critical to good judgment and decisionmaking is not fully developed in youth younger than 18. Youth have difficulty thinking of consequences under stress and managing powerful impulses without adult help. (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Summary of CJJ Positions on Key Juvenile Justice Issues, www.juvjustice.org/media/issues.html)

  • Kids held in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times more likely to commit suicide than are youth in juvenile facilities. (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Summary of CJJ Positions on Key Juvenile Justice Issues, www.juvjustice.org/media/issues.html)

  • Kids held in adult prisons are nearly 50% more likely to be attacked with weapons than are youth in juvenile facilities. (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2000, Juveniles in Adult Prisons and Jails: A National Assessment, www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles1/bja/182503.pdf)

  • Juveniles sent to adult court are more likely to commit crimes again than are those tried in juvenile court. (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Summary of CJJ Positions on Key Juvenile Justice Issues, www.juvjustice.org/media/issues.html)

  • Despite public perception of a crime wave committed by out-of-control youth, just one-third of 1% of juveniles ages 10 - 17 were arrested for violent crimes in 1999. (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report, www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/nationalreport99/toc.html)



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