On the 1200 block of Franklin Street in downtown Houston, there sits the Criminal Justice Center. A comparatively short building in the sprawling Houston skyline, this building holds few stories of triumph and many more of despair. Downstairs at around eight every morning, you will see a line of people wrapped around the door, creating a long string of human anxiousness that permeates the air. And these are just the people who were allowed to show up on their own volition.
“As long as it’s a young mind, they’re salvageable. At those tenderInside this court house, you will find some of the Texas district criminal courts, headed up by appointed judges with great discretion. Attached to each court room is a holding tank, where a dozen or more inmates await some setting or another. Many of these individuals are there to listen after their lawyers have negotiated the next case reset. Others will plead away years of their lives. These are most often the repeat offenders who have had their bail set high enough to make pre-adjudication freedom little more than a dream.
ages, the mind is still pliable and can be shaped. It’s not too late.”
Walk into the court room and you'll feel a buzz. Toward the front are the attorneys - some dressed in their best and others thrown together. You will see government lawyers, those district advocates who hold the purse strings in a deal-making game. You will see clerks and court coordinators. You might see a bailiff or two, and they will usually be yelling at some unsuspecting chap for checking a text on his phone. Inside the rail, these lawyers go to work, handling their many cases in an expedited manner. They have smiles and the conversation is often light. Too often, these lawyers make light of the very real humans they are charged with considering.
On the other side of the rail, you'll find people there to discover their own fate. You will see family members, their heads held in their hands. One colleague described it as watching people in deck chairs on the Titanic. That might be true, so long as the people knew the Titanic was sinking, and the Titanic was actually the Amistad. You see, in Houston, these people are usually black or brown.
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, one of our clients emerged fifteen minutes after docket call. He had waited in a long line to pass through the metal detectors, and that line had caused his tardiness, a severe sin in a Houston court. This client was unique in a way; he was seventeen years old, the arbitrary break where boys become men in Texas courts. And he was there to talk with our lawyers about his fate.
“Sometimes we don’t take the time to look at someone as anOur client's crime had been serious, but he was a first-time offender. He wore his finest Polo shirt, and he showed up to court with his older cousin and his father. The facts indicated that he had been along for the ride, but this Harris County DA had taken charges on an unauthorized operation of a vehicle call. That was a felony, and his range of punishment sat at anywhere from two to ten years.
individual. We look at something a person did in one second, five
seconds, or ten minutes and say that the person has no possibility
of ever overcoming that moment. But those people who make it
out…they can do remarkable things.”
-Terry K. Ray
Before we could go about the business of working out a deal, we had his tardiness to work through. When I said that arriving late was a sin, I failed to disclose the punishment. Texas courts reserve the right to revoke a person's bond, and in this client's case, that might have meant him spending a few weeks in county jail while awaiting his plea. Luckily for us, the judge favored the advocacy of our attorney over objections from the state. Our 17-year old client was allowed to return home and go to school.
Our client received one of the more popular sentences handed down in these courts - two years, deferred adjudication. That particular punishment requires an admission of guilt, and it serves as a sort of heightened probation. If a client has any run-ins with the police over the two-year period, his deferred status can be revoked, and he can go to prison for the minimum time outlined by the guidelines. In this case, that would mean at least two years.
It took us a long time to convince the boy and his father that they just didn't have a case. The evidence was against him - a cop's testimony against the claims of a young black boy in a Texas court. The odds are ugly, and the risks were just too high. They followed the recommendation and the boy avoided jail. But his case is very much still open, and the state's left itself one big out to throw the book at this kid if and when his next indiscretion arises. In many ways, though, he was lucky. The presence of his father mattered, and the district attorneys were reasonable in not seeking prison time. Many in his situation are not so fortunate.
As he walked away, I spoke to his cousin - "please help keep this kid out of trouble." He assured me that he'd try, and I hoped that I'd never see him again.
There is a disturbing tendency in many reaches of American society to throw away our young offenders. Damaged, disturbed, criminals, bad guys, animals. The minute one of these young men makes a mistake, they're assigned the nefarious qualities fit for an untrained dog, and they're discarded just the same. We just don't care what happens to these kids. If they get raped in prison, that was a part of the bargain when they chose to steal that television. If they're locked up at age 12 for life without the possibility of parole, we comfort ourselves with thoughts of their future dangerousness and certainties about their future worthiness.
“Children who commit crimes lack the moral and psychologicalBut there's something critical that we're missing when we make these assumptions - every single thing that has ever been accomplished on the planet has been because of a person. In some cases, these accomplishments have occurred because of the toil of many men and women. But in all cases, at least one human being has been behind our advancement.
underpinnings of adults, but they’re also more resilient, so it is
very possible to change. And it is only through rehabilitating such
children and youth that we are able to learn how to prevent a
similar situation from happening to others.”
A great book is written by a person. A great song is performed by a person. The iPod was created, in part, because of the ingenuity of Steve Jobs, a man who, though a super mind, was still a person. Throughout history, great movements in civil rights and medical research have been spearheaded by creative and dedicated people. Each of these individuals approached society with a unique set of values, experiences, and abilities. They inspired others to join in the movement forward.
When we give up on a person - especially a young person - we deprive ourselves of the potential inherent in that person. Even if only one in every 100 young offenders went on to add his contributions to the world, those are things we miss out on. And why? Because we are too lazy to design a system where our young men (and to a lesser extent, women) are rehabilitated and released. We fail miserably in our duty to these people, and through those efforts, we fail ourselves.
If you don't believe me, perhaps you will believe the tales of success of some extraordinary juvenile offenders who got their second chance. Take Alan Simpson, for instance. Now most famous for his role in the economic debate, the Senator was once what many might call a throw-away delinquent. He and his friends committed an arson and they fired guns at cows, mailboxes, equipment, and people. He received two years worth of probation for the commission of these felonies, and he slowly grew into the successful adult he is today.
How about Charles Dutton, the man best known to me as the mentor and stadium groundskeeper in the popular move Rudy? He's won both Tonys and Emmys, and he honed his craft at Yale University. Before that, he was a resident of state prison in Maryland. Dutton truly might have been seen today as a kid not worth keeping. He spent much of his youth in a juvenile reform school. At the ripe age of 17, he killed another man in a street fight. Both men drew knives and Dutton was both unfortunately and fortunately the better knife fighter. For his crime, he served five years in prison. He might have been thrown away again when he violated his parole by possessing a firearm a few years later. Dutton beat the odds in prison. He stumbled upon some acting books while serving out a solitary sentence for his refusal to take part in the time-honored tradition of toilet cleaning. He earned his G.E.D. right in prison, and he later earned an Associate's Degree.
Luis Rodriguez is now an acclaimed journalist, but he once shot at a man, spent nearly a decade entrenched in Los Angeles's gang culture, and served a six-year sentence for assaulting a police officer. He might have ended up a casualty of the system if not for a stroke of luck. But that's not how it played out, and his works have run in almost every major journalism outlet in the country.
Countless other examples exist of young men who have changed their ways. And the important point to remember, of course, is that these formerly young boys grew into men who have provided contributions in a range of areas that form the basis for American life and culture. They are our contemporaries in a world that depends upon the genius of human action to keep moving forward. And as our system continues toward a trend where these stories are not common enough, we must re-evaluate how to evaluate our juvenile offenders. Rather than classifying them with calloused labels - criminal, delinquent, animal - we must address them as people. Highly malleable people whose creative consciousness likely matches the grossness of their past indiscretions. There's a reason why I titled this diary in such an indirect manner. Juveniles who commit crimes are not necessarily criminals. And until we recognize that, we're missing out on an extraordinary block of human talent that might have otherwise bettered our world.