When comparing the haves and the have-nots, the children of Ward 3 and the wealthy suburbs with the children of Ward 5-8, nowhere are the stakes the highest and the consequences the severest as when it comes to the punishment our government inflicts on our youth for committing petty crimes.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2009, I spent a month or so trying to find a runaway youth, J, one of the sweetest boys you would ever meet. J had fled his abusive father in the beginning of June and had not finished his final exams. I finally found J at a friend's house, safe but scared. When I referred J to DC's Child and Family Services, the social worker interviewed J's mother, the main subject of the abuse, over the phone, and pronounced J fit and ready to return home, and with a police escort to boot. Since then, J has continually run away and has committed the slightest of crimes. The first was shoplifting. However, when you start, you get a record, and you get probation. Committing an offense while on probation gets you into serious trouble. As a minor, J was housed at the Youth Services Center, which houses youths before they go to trial. If he commits a crime after he achieves majority, his scenario might become one like W's.
W is 19. He is another extremely sweet, gentle boy with a wonderful smile. He is extremely dyslexic but is making progress with his reading. He can graduate from high school in June, but this past August he was arrested because he was hanging with some friends who were shoplifting and had some marijuana. He then neglected to charge the batteries on the bracelet which was used to monitor his whereabouts. He is now in adult jail for six weeks until his trial. Eventually, I wonder if he will end up like A.
A was a student of ours four years ago. Then he disappeared, into the same cycle of petty crime that eventually became more serious. It was so easy, living in PG County, to lapse into the culture of drugs and crime. As with J and W, there was no resolution regarding A's crimes but to imprison him, something the United States does with astonishing frequency to its low income African American population--seven times the rate of incarcerating whites.
Place these boys in Ward 3, and you get parents with connections and time and savvy and money who would not allow their children to be in jail for more than a day, if at all. Drug traffic is not tolerated in Ward 3. Every apartment building has either security or a concierge or doorman. In Ward 8, security is minimal. Loitering and marijuana smoking is easy to do. It is a different world for children to grow up in.
Because of his name, A has been first in my cell phone directory of over 1000 names, more than half of which are that of students. I called him during the summer and heard he was going to be incarcerated. He arranged to meet with me at a McDonald's to discuss his future, but he never showed.
Perhaps A testified against someone to get out of being imprisoned. I don't know, and the police are pretending not to know. In any case, A was shot and killed a week ago on Monday night. The police, who did a terrific job imprisoning A for all his petty crimes over the years, claim to know no motive or suspects.