Can we wipe out guilt by decree? Can we absolve ourselves for throwing out the baby and the bathwater? Can we say a child is not a child so we don’t have to admit failure?
How far are we willing to go, harsher and harsher sentences, more Draconian legislation, capital punishment for juveniles?
How did we get here? How did we, in the span of 100 years, go from a society that created special courts to protect children’s best interests because of their status as children, to one that uses its courts to strip its children of their status as children? Whose interests are we protecting by direct filing these kids as adults? Who are we saving, if we can’t save our children?
I know Garry Petit-Frere was not saved. He arrived at the TGK Correctional Facility in the dead of night, and had been in his cell for fewer than ten hours when he lost all hope. The blank canvases and paint tubes for this project’s “convictim” mural were in Unit 2-5 of TGK a few days before Christmas, when he chose to hang himself.
The children held in lock down at this adult facility never had a chance to meet him. His jailhouse neighbor remembers hearing a kick through the cinder block wall, but didn’t think much of it. It was Garry’s struggle with death.
Garry and the twelve dozen peers at TGK who shared that last night with him are all too familiar with struggle in their lives. It is that struggle that first casts them as victims in their households and spits them out as convicts in an adult prison. Shuffled about aimlessly, from a childhood where they were raised by adults who can hardly take care of themselves, to an adolescence where they are jailed by a system that has already given up on them. They are all “convictims.”
Instead of sentencing them to juvenile sanctions that help rebuild them, we convict them as adults and set them on a sadistic path: They serve their adult time, and go on probation – without ever being treated. Not surprisingly, they recidivate. This time their sentence is automatic — they violated probation, they go away to jail or prison.
They were lost the second they were direct-filed.
How can you hope to get these kids to change? How can the adolescent buy into his direct file transfer, when the most important legal decision made in his life — the one stripping him of his status as a child — didn’t give him a voice? A prosecutor without a hearing and without a judge’s review makes the decision. Scientific studies decry the need to eliminate the direct file system and have established we get better results by treating kids as kids.
But somehow, the body politic doesn’t get it. Maybe it doesn’t care. The truth is that most of the kids I saw at TGK don’t look like the people in Tallahassee. We don’t have a parallel demographic here. The truth is that the voting public isn’t too concerned either. It is too easy to do so, they may be 14, they may be 17, but they aren’t good enough to be children.
But no matter how much we may think of them as adults, swimming inside that huge brown jumpsuit, the one with 12 white letters, “INMATE D.C. JAIL”, ironed on the back, is a scared and lonely child. A child replete with all the insecurities and turmoil of adolescence, issues amplified and exacerbated by his circumstance. A child pulled away from an antisocial society and not shown a pro-social path.
Their standard crew cuts, their numbing routine, their sparse jail cells, and their brown jumpsuits with 12 white letters may do much to wipe out their identity and individuality, but it can never mask the irrefutable truth: These are children.
How did we ever let them get here? How could we have ever done this to our children? How did we ever do this to ourselves?