I recently attended a hearing for a high school student of mine at the Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore. In January “Ben” (I’ve changed his name) was arrested on a gun charge — his second in a year. He’s been locked up ever since, first in the juvenile facility, then in the Central Booking and Intake Center once he turned 18 last month.
At this hearing, a judge was supposed to determine whether Ben’s case should remain in juvenile court or be moved up to adult court. But that never happened. After I’d waited several hours with Ben’s mother and sister, the judge discovered that Ben wasn’t there. The justice system neglected to transport him from Central Booking to the court. Our anxiety became mixed with exasperation.
The following day he was taken to the Circuit Court of Baltimore — the adult, criminal court — where another judge heard his case.
Some readers will feel strongly that, given the serious nature of the criminal charge against Ben, he should be charged and tried as an adult. You might even be inclined to punish him as severely as the law allows. After all, who wants gun-toting teenagers running loose in our city?
But what if I told you Ben lived in a neighborhood where residents do not feel safe and where they cannot count on the police to keep them safe?
What if I told you the name he goes by is not his real name, but one he takes from his father, who was murdered when Ben was an infant? He has, in fact, tattooed his father’s name, wreath-like, on his wrist. Do these gestures simply honor a father’s memory, or are they an attempt to fill a void left by a father he never had a chance to know or feel loved by? And should anybody care?
What if I then told you Ben has excellent reading, writing and reasoning skills — competencies that are not easily acquired growing up in Baltimore and attending city schools.
What if I told you it’s not only Ben’s academic performance that stands out but his unflagging initiative? A self-starter, he’s his own engine, highly motivated and seemingly immune to apathy. In fact, Ben was consistently the most eager learner in the room and one of our school’s best students.
What if I told you that in November, as his class worked to complete their essays on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Ben took it upon himself to initiate multiple revisions to his essay, determined to improve it each time?
What if I told you that in December, when Pandora sponsored their Charmed Essay Contest in which students wrote about the woman who’s made the biggest impact in their lives, Ben was the first to jump on this assignment? The posh ceremony for winners was held downtown on the 15th floor of the Pandora building. Mayor Catherine Pugh and City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises were both in attendance. And Ben was also there, among the winners and with his mother, collecting a lovely Pandora bracelet for her.
What if I told you growing up in Baltimore puts so much pressure on kids that we sometimes end up with paradoxes like Ben: intellectually strong, academically motivated and illegally armed.
What if I told you living in distressed neighborhoods can mess with the judgment of even talented, go-getting teenagers?
What if I told you that, despite his gun offenses, this kid is still worthy of our best hopes, that his future hangs in the balance and that he needs one more chance?
What would you do?
While I was at my school reviewing for exams with seniors, a judge delivered a dose of adult punishment. She did not elect to keep Ben’s case in juvenile court where it began; she found him guilty and sentenced him to three years in jail with all but six months suspended, allowing credit for time served, followed by three years’ probation. He could be home in two months.
Some will say Ben got off easy.
But did he? He’s now saddled with a felony conviction that will make him distinctly unemployable, which is a shame on many levels, not the least of which is that the kid hates being idle. And he still has to survive two more hellish months in the state-run Central Booking — a facility The Baltimore Sun has described as “by far the most violent state-run prison or jail in Maryland.”
Ben made some terrible mistakes, but has our justice system made some of its own? Is this the best we can do for kids like Ben?
Adam Schwartz has been teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools for 20 years. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.