‘Rehabilitation is Difficult, But Never Impossible’

[infobox_default_shortcode header=”Real Talk: Juvenile Justice” img=”” color=”#8EC9C8″]This article is part of our Real Talk series on juvenile justice, which delves into how Oregon deals with kids who commit crimes through essays from those who have been convicted, lawyers, lawmakers. Check out the entire Real Talk juvenile justice series. [/infobox_default_shortcode]

Earlier this month, we kicked off our Real Talk series on Oregon’s juvenile justice system with a story about Trevor Walraven, a former inmate who committed aggravated murder when he was 14 years old.

This week, we asked Walraven and two other Oregonians who went to prison as kids — Marc Trice and Anthony Richardson — to share their perspectives on juvenile justice in Oregon.

ANTHONY RICHARDSON

According to our legal system, kids are not mature enough to drive until they’re 16 years old, to consent to sex until they’re 18 years old, or to drink alcohol until they’re 21 years old.

In all these cases, the law recognizes that children are less mature — and their brains are less developed — than adults.

But that logic doesn’t always apply to kids who commit crimes in Oregon. In 1998, for example, I was tried as an adult for a crime I committed at 16 years old. During my trial, the jury came out of deliberations to ask if they could consider a lesser charge, but was told “no” by the judge. They came out a second time to ask about the sentence I would receive if convicted of murder, to which the judge replied, “That’s none of your concern.”

The 1994 ballot initiative Measure 11 provides mandatory minimum sentences for a long list of crimes. If someone over the age of 15 is accused of a Measure 11 crime, they are treated as an adult. Mitigating circumstances are not taken into account, and the judge has no discretion. My youth was not taken into account, nor was the fact that I had no prior convictions. I had to be sentenced as an adult — sentenced to 32 years in prison.

The hypocrisy of the situation was made all the more clear when the woman I had been dating at the time of my arrest was charged with sexually abusing a minor because of our relationship. In the eyes of the law, I was unable to consent to sex with a woman because of my age, but I was still capable of making adult decisions — and receiving the same sentence as someone twice my age.

I’ve worked hard in prison to change my life, but after 20 years inside I am now 36 and worry that I will never get the opportunity to prove my worth and redeem myself in a meaningful way out in the world. My childhood is long over, but the debate about what exactly it means to be a child still affects me every day, as it does hundreds of others. There are efforts out there to advocate for change, so if you’re interested I suggest the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

MARC TRICE

I am 40 years old, married to a wonderful woman, have two incredible children and work as a home remodeler. In my free time I work with at-risk youth.

I’m also celebrating an anniversary soon — this year will mark my 4th year of freedom after serving 22 years in prison.

When I was 15 I took the life of a friend of mine, and there is not a day that goes by when I don’t regret the pain I caused. I was sentenced as an adult and now in my middle age I have spent more time incarcerated than I have been free.

At the time of my sentencing, no one thought that I would make a change in my life or ‘make it’ in the world. I immediately began to work to make a change—to hopefully put some good in the world after the harm I had caused.

Prison is a terrible experience, but part of what I found there saved my life. I wanted to change, and the programs inside helped me make it happen—violent offender treatment, education programming, work programs that teach real skills. That saved my life. I made the change, but they gave me the tools to do it.

Unfortunately, these are the kinds of programs that are too frequently cut. They are seen as luxuries criminals don’t deserve. Although they save people like me, there are far fewer programs now than there were then. Once I aged out of MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility and was transferred into the adult system all the opportunities dropped out from under me, and it took years before I could access positive programs like college classes and community service projects again.

Overall, the system worked OK for me. But there are many others who might be able to be OK if they could access the tools I did. At most prisons, the few positive programs are available to a tiny percentage of the population, and are often underfunded and run by volunteers rather than being seen as part of the core effort of rehabilitation and community safety.

I re-entered the community with a commitment to living a good life. I had an education, a trade, and the self-understanding and tools that emerged from the community and programs I accessed on the inside. That’s what saved my life.