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Children As Prisoners

by | Jan 18, 2013 | From Adam's Desk

It is has been an interesting journey as an attorney to get an inside look at the legal system – where it works, where it fails, where it falters and where it is simply quits. I never imagined when I started defending people accused of crimes that I would find myself empathizing with them as much as I ultimately do. It comes down to that old saying, “don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” I guess I never understand what that meant until I found myself staring across the table at a young man – whose face was not much older than my own – who had been accused of terrorizing entire neighborhoods of the city in which I grew up.

Yet, through the simplest act of discussion, I began to realize that this young man was not born under the same code which I was forced to follow as a young man. This young man was never told – truly told – he would go to college (or finish high school for that matter). This young man did not even understand the basic value of an education: what it meant to read and write and communicate in the universal language of mathematics. In fact, this young man knew only survival in its most base form.

He knew only jealousy: wanting what the television told him that he had to have to be attractive to women or worthwhile in our consumer society. He knew only anger: wondering what his peers had done to deserve the finest clothes and cars that he had not done or was not capable of doing himself.

Was it is his fault that his parents were impoverished? Was it his fault that his parents chose to put needles in their arms instead of food in their children’s bellies? Was it his fault that his parents chose not to work or even scrap to make a living wage? Was it his fault that his parents chose to move them from home to home, apartment to apartment, school to school, or shelter to shelter until the resources, food and water ran out of each?

How angry that poor, sweet child must have been and must still be, standing alone in the middle of the street, nowhere to go, hungry and never been loved? Where does he turn? To a God he’s never known? To a school that can barely afford to keep its teachers paid and its light on?

I write this in response to a case in which I am currently defending. A poor, black juvenile has been bound over – in a different county – to be tried as an adult for a very serious felony. The victims are demanding years – or at least that is how they define “justice.” And if their “justice” is served this sixteen year old girl will be sent to the Ohio Reformatory for Women – among murderers, drug dealers, sexual offenders and the like – until she is nearly a middle-aged woman.

But these victims don’t know this child – for she is still just that, a child. They do not know the sexual abuse and horrors that she endured from the ages of 3 until she was 12. They do not know that she was raped and forced to abort her baby as a young teenager. They do not know that her father manufactured crack-cocaine in the very home where she slept soundly in her cradle. They lack any comprehension of what brought her to the desperate point where she felt she had no choice but to commit a crime.

I sit here as a lawyer brought to my knees by a system that I so want to believe in, and I simply do not know what to do. But, for our children, we must re-define justice. We must acknowledge that our young people cannot be held to same level of culpability as adults; that they are the product of a society that we have all had a hand in creating; that poverty and lack of education drives our greatest national deficits in unemployment and is leading to the degradation of our great asset – our children.

It is no secret that I believe that Clarence Darrow – of Kinsman, Ohio – is the greatest criminal defense lawyer in American jurisprudence. And more than ninety years ago in defense of two homosexual boys accused of killing an eight year old, Darrow argued before the court, in his attempt to save those boys from the noose that:

“if I should succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod – that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love.

. . . It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:

So I be written in the Book of Love,

I do not care about that Book above.

Erase my name or write it as you will,

So I be written in the Book of Love.”

Our children are deserved of our greatest mercy, our greatest faith and our most humane and beloved acts of grace. And if we cannot find it in our hearts to commit ourselves to those very principles, then God help us all.

What Do We Do Now

As you all know a few weeks ago, a deranged young man shot and killed several young children, teachers and other individuals in Newton, Connecticut. As always, in this country, the outcome of this tragedy has included a media blitz of around the clock coverage that in many ways did more harm than good, and political and social opportunists who continue to manipulate the situation to forward their own, personal agendas.

I have sat back silently for several weeks to reflect and watch our reaction, and I am disgruntled to say the least. The great and overwhelming debate in which this country has engaged has been almost singularly over the Second Amendment and gun control in the context of school safety – a relevant discussion, I agree. But where is the discussion and great debate for mental health services reform.

The sick young man who committed this atrocious crime obviously suffered from some mental illness, and somewhere throughout his life, his family, his school district and his community failed to either recognize, diagnose and/or treat him. We see this everyday, and it makes the reality of this tragedy all the more close to home when we look at it through the lens of the sheer lack of resources in this country – in this community – for mental health services.

Long-standing and hard-working organizations like ADAMH Board, Community Counseling Services and the local Board of Developmental Disabilities have been overworked and understaffed for so long because of budget cuts, deficit spending and the sheer apathy within the legislature towards mental health services.

Psychology, neuropsychology, psychiatry and other neurosciences have made amazing advances in the area of mental illness, but to date, most of these treatments and therapies are only available to those with the requisite resources to take advantage of them.

Now, we can engage in the divisive debate over free access to such services for those on public assistance or we can begin our discussion with the recognition that there is a need in this country for overwhelming mental health services reform. And further accept the proposition that such reforms would only be as effective to the country as our ability to ensure its widespread availability to the populace at large. Having that established, let us begin a creative discussion on how we can best fund the reforms we desperately need.

The Second Amendment and the debate over gun control has reared its head over and over again in the wake of gun violence in this country. It cannot be disputed that the awful power of firearms has far-exceeded that imagined by the drafters of the Constitution. And there are grave and serious concerns of access and safety when someone – anyone – brings a firearm into the presence of minor children, especially in a school setting where children’s age, maturity, and comfort and exposure to firearms differ in scope and range. Not to mention the enormous pressures that teachers and staff already face in light of the broad, sweeping changes to state and federally mandated curriculum requirements, and teacher / district grading and rating systems.

The presence of firearms in an educational environment may not be route take under these circumstances.

When I was in high school (not all that long ago), I remember having a Bucyrus Police Officer constantly in the school building as a school resource officer. He was armed, and obviously trained to deal with hostile – even armed – conflict. The value of his presence in the school could not be quantified, and he had a great relationship with teachers, staff and students which made him easy to approach and talk to. Funding issues eventually led to the program being dropped, but this is an option that we need to explore again in light of this tragedy. And it seems an appropriate middle ground within the context of that Second Amendment debate.

Regardless, I challenge the reader in light of these divisive debates to put away the emotion and anger stirred by your conviction to either side of the discussion, and remember those innocent children, and brave teachers and administrators. Remember “even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, when in our despair, against our will comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.” Pray for wisdom.