He is 12 Years Old
As soon as I have the signed order in hand, I head to the “at-risk” cell block to make sure my client is released.
My client’s mother, waiting in the hallway, is mad at me. She thinks her son is out-of-control and needs to be locked up, and we have been working at cross-purposes throughout this case.
He comes and goes whenever he pleases, she tells me. The only time I see him is when he stops into the house to change his clothes. The older kids who used to pick on him have now become his best friends. He doesn’t go to school. I can’t sleep at night because I have no idea where he is or what he is doing. If he is locked up, at least that way I know where he is. If he is locked up, I can get the help I need.
You understood when we started this thing, I tell her, what my role was.
I hand the order to the DYRS workers in the control room and then sit down in an interview room with my client. It is not often that we get to relay good news: You are going home today, I tell him.
Will I have to wear an ankle bracelet? Meet with my probation officer? Go in front of the judge?
No, I say. None of that. This case is over.
Will you still be my lawyer? His mother complains that he left the wrist bracelet on after his first arrest to show to his friends. She overheard him bragging about having a lawyer.
No, I tell him. They violated your constitutional rights.
He doesn’t seem to understand this so I try again: You should never have been arrested by the police. There was no reason to stop you. This case is over.
He is the kid who had to be dragged out of the courtroom screaming for his mother when he was locked up for the first time: “Mommy! Mommy! Don’t let them take me away!” But when I visited him at the Youth Services Center, he seemed to be doing very well. They have basketball here, he told me. And I go to school.
A colleague tells me that three of her juvenile clients were killed after she fought to get them released. Eighteen seems to be the average life expectancy for these kids, she says. But we can’t think too much about peer pressure and poverty and life on the streets. Dwelling on these things would only prevent us from doing our jobs: The juveniles are our clients and our bosses. If they want to go home (and, of course, they always do, no matter how miserable the conditions may be), this has now become part of our marching orders.
My client thanks me, and offers his hand. His handshake is weak, what my father would have called the “limp fish handshake,” but our eyes meet, if only for a moment.
You be good, I tell him. You go to school. You stay away from those boys who got you into trouble. Where were they when you got locked up? Where were they when you were standing all by yourself in front of the judge?
But my heart isn’t in it: I know there is absolutely nothing that this older white man – or anyone for that matter — can say to him that will make any difference. The trajectory of his life has been set. Besides, I have already lost his attention.
He shakes my hand again and I linger by the door as he heads back to the cell block, shuffling because of the leg irons.
I tell him it will be a couple of hours before they process the paperwork, but he doesn’t seem to hear me and he does not look back when he reaches the cell block door. He is thinking ahead to other things. Maybe he is deciding what he will tell the other boys when he gets back to the cell. The door closes behind him before I can hear what that might be.
Note: Although often inspired by real people, the characters I describe in this and other blog entries are composites.
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