Sunday, November 23, 2014

Youthful Mistakes and Consequences


Stupid things done during one's adolescence can have consequences that are great or small.

In my upper-middle-class town, we have young people who do drugs.  They seldom are caught, and so the consequences are limited or at least deferred.

A few years ago, two local students caused car accidents while driving drunk.  One ran a car into a tree, killing the passenger.  The other darted into a busy street and T-boned a small truck, killing its driver.  I believe both drivers were incarcerated, appropriately, but that their sentences were not prolonged and they can get past their problems and on with their lives while they are still young.

Second chances like these are not available to everyone, though.

A Harder Case

I went online the other day to look for an old friend with whom I'd lost touch.  I didn't find her, but I did find a nephew of hers whom she had mentioned once.  She told me he was in prison for killing his mother's boyfriend.

Here is the young man's story as recounted in court papers I found online.  At the advice of his mother, he confessed to what he had done.  The crimes were committed when the young man was 16; by then he had been abusing drugs for two years and had a record for unspecified violence.

"In 1999, defendant had left his mother's home in East Orange and was staying in Newark with __________, whom he knew as Fuquan.  Also living in Fuquan's apartment were Fuquan's girlfriend and her two toddler children.

"According to the defendant, at Fuquan's suggestion he agreed to assist in the armed robbery of a cab driver who was seeking cocaine from Fuquan.  They expected the cab driver to have $300 in his possession and intended to rob that money at gunpoint without ever obtaining any drugs for him.  When the cab driver arrived, Fuquan directed the cab to an isolated area, and defendant and Fuquan stepped out and walked around the corner as if they were going to buy drugs.  When they returned, Fuquan got into the back seat while defendant stood outside as a lookout.  Defendant then heard a gunshot in the cab, and he saw that Fuquan had shot the driver in the head.  Fuquan went through the driver's pockets and took money, only about $70 according to defendant.  Defendant received $20 and later, Fuquan gave defendant his handgun.  Defendant carried the handgun in his back pocket, he said, so that the children in the apartment would not handle it."

"A short time after the robbery, defendant overheard Fuquan telling his girlfriend that he wanted to kill defendant.  On the morning of Sunday, March 28, 1999, while the girlfriend was out of the apartment and the two toddlers were watching a Rugrats cartoon show on television, defendant and Fuquan got into a physical fight, each punching the other.  Defendant drew his handgun from his back pocket and shot Fuquan in the head, killing him.  He claimed he saw Fuquan reaching for his own gun, and defendant just beat him to the draw.  Defendant admitted that he fired two shots at Fuquan."

The 16-year-old was remanded to adult court and, at the advice of his public defender, pleaded guilty to the two homicides and other offenses related to the first robbery/homicide.  He was given concurrent 40-year prison sentences, ordered to serve 34 years before he was eligible for parole, and to five years of parole after his release.

The young man was sent to prison.

Six years later, he began to file appeals.  First he claimed he had had ineffective representation from his lawyer, giving no details of lawyer's failures.

Then he argued that he had not been properly informed that he would have to serve parole after his prison release.

Then he argued that his defender did not explain that he could have tried to convince a court panel that he should be tried as a juvenile, not an adult.

Not surprisingly, all the appeals failed.

The young man has grown up -- not physically; he weighs just 130 pounds -- but with time.  He is 31, has been in prison 15 years and must serve at least another 19 years.  If he qualifies for parole at that point, he will be 50 years old.

His Prison

I've met several people who have worked in prisons as teachers or counselors.  One is a woman who has taught at the young man's prison for many years.  She spoke once at a meeting I attended.

The prison, she said, was built in an inner city with the agreement that local residents would be employed as guards.  She said that many of the guards were themselves gang members who sold cellphones or drugs to the inmates.  She did not think highly of the administration at the prison.

Like the other people who volunteer in prisons, she sympathized with at least some of the inmates.  She described them as followers mostly, as men who had not had much attention or guidance in their early years.  She was giving her time because she believed that at least some of the prisoners, over time, could make something of themselves.

What Should We Do

I understand why the young man was not considered a good candidate for juvenile court.  Even if he had been sent to a juvenile program before the shootings, I doubt that such a program, as these are currently organized, would have helped him to get off the bad track he was on.

He certainly did stupid things, most notably adopting an armed criminal as a father figure.  (His own father does not seem to have been in the picture at all.)

By the time he was 16, nobody could tell him what to do.  He needed a structured environment with honorable people who cared about him and gained his trust. He needed tough love and to be able to see a personal future without chaos.

We don't have corrections systems like that.  We take people who have had terrible upbringings and who have done bad things and then worse things.  At that point, we exact vengeance.

I wish we had better answers.

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