Whenever I come home on a break from college, I drive past the old lot where we spent summer days playing baseball and kickball. We would start as soon as our parents left for work in the morning and play till long after street lights appeared.
We were the "poor kids." We knew about things we probably should not have, we did things we definitely should not have, but we thought just like all children. Our eyes still sparkled with pride when we did something well, like hit a home run.
We had hope and optimism. We were going to save the world -- my baby brother was going to be an architect and his best friend Charlie, a doctor.
Then we grew up. With no guidance or support, we found ourselves in trouble. Charlie latched on to the lifestyle his brother encouraged. At 13, he experimented with alcohol and drugs. At 14, he started getting in trouble with the law for curfew violations and petty theft. At 15, Charlie stole a car and went into juvenile detention. At 16, he broke into somebody's house, and they sent him to adult jail. Charlie had gone too far.
Many people think raising a child is someone else's business. The U.S. Congress takes exactly this position with House Bill HR 1501 and Senate Bill S.254. They close their eyes and ears to the needs of delinquent children, who are not so different from their own children. The bills call for tougher punishments and sending the children to adult prisons, instead of intensive rehabilitation.
Adult prisons are atrocious places for children. Young people in these facilities are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be assaulted by staff, and 50 percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than those in juvenile facilities. This may explain why they are also eight times more likely to commit suicide in adult jails.
I think of Charlie in a place like that. He turns 18 two weeks after my 20th birthday, and I am far from being an adult. Charlie was thrust into the adult world by a judge who thought tougher measures would speed results. That is like turning up the oven to brown cookies faster. You are just going to burn them.
These children need the structure and stability many of them never received while growing up. I found those things in the public schools. While my homes and families changed frequently, I could always look forward to school from 8:30 to 3:30, five days a week. I could always expect the teacher to be there.
Charlie looked for stability in the only places he knew, among his friends, and found it in that juvenile detention center. They could have spent less time punishing Charlie and more time helping him find structure outside the center, because when he left the detention center, he was without structure once more.
Charlie's home life was bad, and often he would retreat to our place, which wasn't much better. I cooked for him, helped him with his homework and took care of him when he was sick. Charlie wanted someone to tell him it was OK when he cried. I tried to do that.
Eventually, I went into foster care to save myself from abuse at home. I kept regular contact with my brother. He lived marginally, but Charlie fell quickly over the edge. He found himself, at 16, in county jail, not a juvenile detention center.
He served four months. Four months was more than enough.
I ran into Charlie this summer. We talked briefly, and he tried to play it cool, but something was missing. A sadness and hopelessness has set over Charlie. His eyes have lost the sparkle I remember when he would hit one out of the park. The tears have dried up, too. Charlie probably won't cry for help anymore.
Congress is considerong a bill that would put more youth in adult prisons, try more youth as adults, open juvenile records to the public. Urge your representative and senators to oppose these harsh provisions, and encourage them to support prevention efforts. You can reach your senators and representative by calling the Capitol switchboard at 202/224-3121.
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