I’m Proof Kids Don’t Need Extreme Sentences to Pay Debt

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Francesca Duran-LopezI work with children who have parents in prison and with parents who are serving time. Much of my work focuses on effective parenting and child abuse prevention. When we reduce the occurrences of child abuse, we also help prevent violence by these same children later in life.

I do this through my job with PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit organization. My main responsibility is to manage a home visit parenting program for families with young children. In the evenings and on weekends, I work in a new program that provides children with developmentally appropriate activities and their parents with resources while they are waiting to visit someone who is incarcerated.

I’m passionate about these issues because I grew up behind bars. I entered the juvenile justice system when I was just 13 after I was accused of participating in the murder of another girl my age in my hometown of Clovis, N.M. Despite the difficulties of that experience, I grew from a child, acting out impulsively as a result of my own unresolved trauma, into a responsible, working mother active in my community. I was released at 18 and have never looked back.

hub_arrow_2-01As we observe the third anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, which found it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a crime committed by a person younger than 18, it is a good time to think about how we hold accountable children who are accused of serious crimes. This accountability should be age-appropriate and trauma-informed.

When I was growing up, my family was extremely poor. My parents were alcoholics and had separated by the time I was 5 due to domestic violence stemming from daily intoxication. When something went wrong in my family, we did not talk about our frustrations or hurt.

My parents only knew how to parent the way they were parented in the 1960s and that was through hitting. I saw the same thing in my neighborhood and thought the only way was to fight for what you wanted and sometimes just to keep what belonged to you.

I was first expelled from Head Start when I became aggressive when a little boy was on a swing I wanted to use. I had been taught to hit, not use my words and say I wanted to use that swing.

By the time I was 12, I had been kicked out of two schools because of my violent outbursts. No one ever tried to find out why I was violent. No one wanted to know what trauma I had experienced. I was never properly treated for my mental health issues. No one took the time to help my family learn the skills we needed to take a different approach. I was expected to behave in school, but I didn’t know how. I knew only violence and aggression.

In August 1998, a few days before I was to begin eighth grade, the unthinkable occurred. My sister had been attacked a few days earlier by a group of girls. We decided we would get them back, so we rounded up a group of our cousins and friends. We thought we would beat them up, then brag about it when we went back to school.

But during the confrontation, a family member my age who had experienced severe abuse pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed one of the girls to death. We were all children who did not have the intention of taking the life of any human being. I was confused, angry and scared about what I had witnessed and thinking about going to prison for the rest of my life.

I wanted to have a trial because I didn’t agree with the charges and did not think I should have to say that I was an accessory to murder: I had no idea that a life would be taken.

I was held in a juvenile facility awaiting trial. After three years, I was released on house arrest as I continued to await the trial. While home, I began a relationship with my first boyfriend and became pregnant.

Because he had ordered me to have no contact outside my family, the judge said I had violated the terms of my release and had me reinstitutionalized. I decided to plead guilty to aggravated battery, accessory to aggravated battery, conspiracy and harboring a felon so that I could end the ordeal as soon as possible.

The judge sent me more than 200 miles away to a facility in Albuquerque, N.M. While there, I began to grow up. I was six months pregnant and knew that I wanted more for my child and myself. Staff from PB&J introduced themselves and began meeting with me. It was hard for me to trust initially, but the staff was trained in addressing trauma and gave me the space I needed to start learning. They taught me parenting skills and helped me develop a relationship with my child, who went to live with my mother after I gave birth while locked up.

I was 18 when I was released. PB&J helped me get my first job as a cashier at Kmart. During my four years there, I rose through the ranks and became a manager for several departments. I was encouraged to go to college. Despite my reluctance, I enrolled at Central New Mexico Community College, where I earned an associate’s degree in early childhood development.

Nearly 10 years ago, PB&J offered me a job with them. I now work as the home visiting manager, running programs for all three PB&J sites in New Mexico. I am just a few classes away from earning my bachelor’s degree.

I am proof that we do not need extreme sentences to hold children accountable. I was adjudicated in the juvenile system, which was set up specifically to address the needs of children. I was given a second chance to live in free society, unlike the thousands of young people charged as adults and sentenced to die in prison.

More than 2,500 people have been sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth. Approximately one-quarter of them are like me in that they did not actually commit a murder and may not have known that it was going to take place. And regardless of the role that they played, no child should be sentenced to die in prison. Everyone deserves an opportunity to prove that they have changed and are ready to be reintegrated into society.

My goal now is to help families. I also want to make sure that we diagnose and address trauma in children. The reality is that most children who are charged with these crimes come from poor neighborhoods and have experienced violence and other traumas.

We can do better. Since the Miller decision, 13 states have eliminated life without parole as a sentencing option for children, and a bill in Connecticut awaits the governor’s signature. Together, we can replace these draconian sentences with accountability measures that make sense and work.

Francesca Duran-Lopez is home visiting manager at PB&J Family Services, a New Mexico nonprofit helping at-risk youth grow to their full potential in nurturing families within a supportive community.

5 thoughts on “I’m Proof Kids Don’t Need Extreme Sentences to Pay Debt

  1. The story shows,courage that has tuched my soul.deeply.now I will finish my dreams

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  2. Incarceration is tough. it can be tougher at release to carry on, I’m very happy you had help, and matured … as children & teenagers will as time passes.

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  4. Your article moved me. The one thing that protruded in me reading it was the mention of mental health issues. Mental health is a misnomer at best.

    I was admitted to a psych hospital because i was a wealthy white boy of good white working white parents who socked his stepdad in the face and broke his jaw. Thats a crime not a mental health issue. Insted of going to juvinile hall i was given a scarlet letter and labeled a paranoid schizophrenic. This ruined my life. I should have been arrested and treated like a regular criminal. Instead i was pumped full of pills and given ssi and ssdi and told i could never live a normal life being treated as a secondary member of society.

    I went off my meds cold turkey 4 months ago. I go to school in Chicago full time and am independent but all the people in my family are afraid of me and wont talk to me because of the fake disease known as schizophrenia which has such stigma attached to it in society i do not stand a chance at succeeding with getting married or working like everyone else who wants that in life whom has not been branded and kicked out of normal society.

    Even my church of 25 years has called ny mother asking if im armed and violent, because they are so ignorant and scared of what the mental health feild made them believe. Im a member but have been told i am not to attend because i dont take psych meds.

    Still i rise.
    Please respond to me. I know you are a good person and i think you are doing what God wants. You have strength like i have been forced to develope. Maybe we have a kindred spirit. Any response at all, even a negative one would mean so much to me.

    I am proud of you and support your political adgenda.

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