Steve Reba: On the Ground in Georgia's Juvenile Justice System

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For more than an hour, I sat in an interview room waiting for the prison guards to bring him up from solitary. In a place where anything can be fashioned into a weapon, time is no exception.

Tired of staring at the large metal door, I pulled a manila folder labeled “Letters” from my case file and began reading. Sent in roughly four-week intervals, each letter was a plea in the same format.  Part one, the abuse.  Part two, imploring me for help.  Part three, thanking me profusely.

As I reached the end of last month’s letter, I heard the faint sound of ankle chains hitting the ground. The door clicked, swinging open, and he appeared in the doorway with a guard on each arm.

I asked the guards to remove his cuffs, which they did with typical deliberation. Standing up, I walked over to the twenty-two-year old who had spent the last eight years of his life in prison and the last two months in solitary.  I reached out and shook his hand.

He smelled like urine.  His hair was grey with dust, fingernails overgrown, black skin dry to the point of bleeding between the self-inflicted scars on his forearms.  His already gaunt face looked noticeably thinner than only a month ago.

Criminally tried and convicted of armed robbery at the age of fourteen, he was dying beneath a twenty-year sentence.  The trial court’s sentencing order told me it was year eight of his sentence, but his child welfare case file, a box of documents that detailed his life in Georgia’s foster care system, told me it was year twenty-two.

I knew a two-month stint in solitary didn’t make the top 100 worst events of his life.  I knew he suffered profound abuse before the age of seven. I knew his father stole the school clothing his foster grandmother bought him for his eighth birthday to buy crack.  I knew he told a state-appointed psychologist “it’s too late for me” when he was nine.  I knew he had been victimized again and again in his five years in state prison.

I began our conversation by telling him about my week.  He always asked, so I told him about my infant son and wife, and then moved into my legal work.  He liked hearing about my other clients, in general terms of course.  So, I spent a good deal of time telling him about an eleven-year old client I recently began representing.

The eleven-year old had spent two weeks in one of Georgia’s harshest regional youth detention centers for accidentally bringing a fishing multi-tool, which had a small knife as one of its many instruments, to school.  The boy forgot to remove it from his jacket after a fishing trip with his father the night before.

I told him about my visit to the regional youth detention center to see the boy.  I told him about the small, chubby boy’s high voice and how this was his first contact with the juvenile justice system.  I told him about how the boy had only rarely been able to eat a meal while detained, because the older boys were constantly taking his food at meal time.  Finally, I told him how the boy was shackled and wearing a blue jumpsuit in court when I got him released from detention.

We chatted for a while longer about his life at the prison, later moving into a detailed discussion of his case.  As we ended the conversation, and the guards re-entered the room to place the restraints back on his hands, he said, “You tell that eleven-year old not to let the lock-up mess with his head.”

I told him I would, and I began the long process of exiting the prison.

As I walked down the outside corridor stretching between the cell blocks and the prison entrance, I thought about the twenty-two-year and the eleven-year old and how they represented two poles of an expansive system.

The sun glinted on the rows of barbwire adorning a fence that seemed to carry to the horizon, and I asked myself the fundamental questions behind my project’s mission:

Can the eleven-year old be stopped from progressing further into the system?

Can the twenty-two-year old be snatched from the precipice of a life forever lost?

Yes.

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Steve Reba is an attorney at Emory Law School’s Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic where he directs an Equal Justice Works project called Appeal for Youth.  The project, sponsored by Ford & Harrison LLP, provides holistic appellate representation to youthful offenders in Georgia’s juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This blog follows the clients Appeal for Youth represents, hoping to present a genuine look into a system that is largely unknown or misunderstood by the public.

6 thoughts on “Steve Reba: On the Ground in Georgia's Juvenile Justice System

  1. Steve,

    I am moved beyond words…. You are the right person for this work!

  2. I read this article thanks to a friend who sent me the link from the USA. I live in Italy, in Florence, and I think that, despite our difficulties, some problems of American juvenile justice cannot even be imagined here, given that children under 14 years of age can not be “criminally liable”, in any case…
    Therefore, the last two questions are really shocking: “Can the eleven-year old be stopped from progressing further into the system? Can the twenty-two-year old be snatched from the precipice of a life forever lost?”
    Many thanks to Barbara (who sent me the link) and to the Author of the article for describing this experience so intensly.

  3. Sharon, Christopher and Leslie –
    Thanks so much for your comments. We hope you’ll join in the conversation often, and spread the word. Watch for Steve’s blog in this space on a regular basis. He is a powerful writer. If any of you would like to write about your own experiences, please let me know.
    Best wishes from Ellen Miller, Editor.
    emille43@kennesaw.edu

  4. Wow, Steve. Superb article! Thanks for shining a light on an issue that we should all care about a lot more. I read an article recently about the prison system in Norway – they’re all about rehabilitation, and their recidivism rate is dramatically lower than in the U.S. Too bad the “tough on crime” folks don’t seem to be interested in actual data – their posturing comes at great cost to our society at large in addition to individuals like those you profiled.

  5. Excellent article, Steve. You are doing amazing things at Barton, and I look forward to reading more about your fellowship.

  6. This account is vivid and powerful. Regarding the 11 year old, the case for more rational school discipline policies, procedures and implementation is readily apparent. Regarding the 22 year old, one cannot help but wonder who this young man would be today if at age 14 he not only had been held accountable for his actions (in proportion to his culpability), but had also been enrolled in programming directed at increasing his competency to become a productive citizen (in his case, intensive and effective interventions to counteract the dramatic deprivations he had suffered as a young child). We must also consider if the law (known as “SB 440” since its passage 16 years ago) that led to this 20 year sentence in adult court for a 14 year old defendant is going to lead to the intended outcome: greater public safety. If this young man survives another 12 years of his sentence, and is released at age of 34, will the community into which he will be released feel as though the 20 years in prison has given this young man what he needs to be a productive citizen going forward? Unlikely. Not based on what Steve described of the 12 years to date. And if that is the case, isn’t it time for SB 440, which has been on the books long enough to be judged as workable or not, to be subjected to close legislative scrutiny to consider better ways to achieve public safety, personal accountability and compentency development of a minor child so that s/he doesn’t make that same bad decisions again? I am glad that this website now exists so that this kind of observation and reflection can be shared with a wider audience. Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to put what you saw in words for the rest of us to read and consider.