Steve Reba: Adult by Fiat, Perseverance by Child

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One of the first children—pardon me, one of the first thirteen-year-old adults—that  Georgia automatically transferred to the criminal justice system has spent more than half of his seventeen years in the hole.  

His knuckles bear the scars of an antipathy to abusive power and injustice, as does his disciplinary record.  And while his moral compass is quite in line with what passes for heroism on the outside, on the inside, such defense of principle usually leaves you bantering with desolation’s four walls.

There was the correctional officer who took a stack of his neatly written letters asking for legal assistance that the boy was planning to send once he could afford postage. After tossing them on the ground, the officer urinated on the pleas for help in front of the seventeen-year-old.  Or, there was the klansman correctional officer at Alto who constantly referred to him as “nigger slave.” As you’ve likely deduced, his response to both resulted in injury to the officers, years in solitary, and retributive cruelty from the friends of those he beat, which kept the cycle spinning.

His are the kind of prison offenses that make parole difficult.  In a history-written-by-those-who-conquer situation, facts of these incidents are generally not included in the summaries supplied to the parole board. And, as hard as he fights to protect his dignity, he will never conquer if he continues to physically harm correctional officers.

Shackled and escorted by those who provoke him, we chat often about these incidents.  Our discussions usually center on what he needs to sacrifice to get what he wants, which is to be with his aging mother. I once tried to sell him on pacifism, and he politely listened to me stumble through a description of its tenets. He even read materials on the principle of ahimsa, ultimately rejecting it as further subjugation.

While one could assume his approach is about respect among his fellow prisoners, I know that’s not his motivation. Instead, it’s about a life on the threshold of evisceration by degradation and a rebellion against being pushed past the point of tolerable subjugation.

This, however, is the innate problem with automatic transfer, or adult by fiat. It inherently fails to provide for the “realistic hope for release,” which the federal constitution requires. As his story details, the inevitable consequence of putting a child in prison with adults—the kind made by time—is profound subjugation and abuse.  Forced to make a decision, the child-inmate must either bow and forever leave on the inside the principles that make us human, or he must rage and leave his entire self there until he is willing to bow.  Either way, there is no release.

We put a thirteen-year-old in one of the darkest and most torturous places on this planet for taking a rival gang member’s life in a street war. We labeled the seventh-grader an adult and asked him to submit.   We pissed on him, called him a nigger and a slave, and kept him alone for nine years of his life. Yet, seventeen years later, he continues to rebel against his treatment, engaging the injustices in fights that he will never win and that will never be seen.

Ah, the perseverance of children.


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

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