I was 13, and my girlfriends and I had just begun to hang out with some older boys. It was the summer before the eighth grade, and they were 16, going to be juniors, and they had a car. We’d hang out late at night, each telling our mothers that we were at the other friend’s house, and we’d mostly hang out on the jungle gyms at the park or drive out to the Las Vegas desert and drink wine coolers.
None of us had fake IDs yet, or looked even remotely close to age 21, so we decided one night to steal some beer from a gas station. I went in with one of the older boys, and the others waited with the car running. He grabbed a case of beer and I held the door open as he ran through it, both of us sprinting through the parking lot into the already-moving car.
We never got caught.
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I have thought about this event many times since then. At first, and for years afterwards, I used to tell the story to my friends, because I thought it made me seem so adventurous and edgy. More recently, I would marvel at our luck, as many of those friends and others I knew from Las Vegas became entangled with the law in one way or another.
And now I just think: What if we did get caught? And what if that same story took place in Buffalo, or Raleigh, or Brooklyn?
I began the process of reporting what would turn into a three-part series on the Raise the Age campaign in February of this year. I was shocked to find out that Connecticut had only recently raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18, and that young people were automatically prosecuted as adults at age 16 in New York and North Carolina.
This means at 16 you are legally considered an adult in the eyes of the criminal justice system, no matter if your offense is a misdemeanor like disorderly conduct or a violent felony like armed robbery.
While at 13, I would have been charged as a minor in our gas station beer robbery, the boys I was with would have had unsealed criminal records. Would they have been able to get into college? Would they have been able to age out of the crazy, immature behavior of teens everywhere and live productive lives?
Young people in New York or North Carolina aren’t as lucky as many of my friends back in Vegas were, who, even after a high school arrest, were able to attend college at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas or Reno, get jobs, turn them into careers.
When I spoke with Eddie Caldwell, the vice president of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, he told me there was a difference between first-time offenders and “career criminals.” It amazed me that he thought a 16-year-old could have a career in anything, let alone one in crime.
To me, phrases like “career criminals” serve as dog whistles for the subtext of what people like Caldwell are actually saying: minority. Black. Latino. The numbers of minorities, especially young men, who are incarcerated bear this out. And for poor minority youth, a criminal record is just another strike against being able to go to college, get a good job, move up the socioeconomic ladder.
Adolescence and young adulthood is a time of pushing boundaries. You push them so you can define them for yourself, so you can understand where your morals lie and what makes you who you are. For many, those boundaries might be recreational drug use, underage alcohol use, shoplifting. Water-balloon fights. Anyone who has known or been a teenager realizes that.
The long-term effects of a criminal record on a young person, not to mention the dangers of incarcerating youth with adults, including being five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, can haunt them throughout their lives. And research has shown that youth incarcerated as juveniles are much less likely to recidivate than those placed in adult facilities.
What it comes down to, as in most things, is money. Overhauling the system costs money, and many people don’t want to spend it.
Diana Gonzalez is the mother of David Burgos, a mentally ill 17-year-old who hung himself in an adult facility in Connecticut in 2005. When she testified before the Connecticut House of Representatives on behalf of raising the age, she said, “What I’m hearing now is that our youth aren’t worth tackling a problem that might be hard and cost some money. What I’m hearing is that my son wasn’t worth it.”
And unfortunately, what Gonzalez so powerfully articulated to Connecticut legislators is still true today in North Carolina and New York. Are those kids not worth it? Were my friends and I?
Those boys in the car with us that night didn’t grow up overnight; some of them got into some more trouble with the law before they grew out of it. But they did grow out of it. Some earned college degrees, and they developed careers as real estate agents or high school coaches, not as street criminals.
What if we weren’t so lucky? What if we were raised in Durham, in Albany, in Charlotte?