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Open Mic

Kids in Prison

By Hank Mattimore

The last time I saw "Paul" (not his real name) was in a dinky cell at Juvenile Hall in Sonoma County. 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 pretrial hearing.

Paul and his 17-year-old buddy, 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 a 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. The things he will never experience, anywhere, hit home: the senior prom, graduating with his class from high school, the satisfaction that comes with earning a 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 ask.

"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 for 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 just pray that he will survive his sentence.

The 15-year-old who is so sure he can take care of himself does not yet realize that 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 in our country, 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.

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. Neuroscientists 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 normally. 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.

To me, Paul is a poster child for a system in crisis. The product of an abusive home, he was taken away from his addicted mother at age six. His father was a nameless truck driver who had had a one-night stand with Paul's teenaged 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 becoming 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 Head Start or a similar program?

Why do we as a society think that it's a better investment to spend $40,000 a year to lock up a kid in prison for 20 years instead of putting a fraction of that $800,000 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 of 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, "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 that he would.

After all, Paul is still just a kid.

A longtime advocate for children's rights, Hank Mattimore is chair of the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission. 'The Byrne Report' will return Jan. 12.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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