At a remove of almost 50 years, my two surviving partners-in-crime growing up in Rockingham and I concluded that most of the offenses for which we were arrested as juveniles ranked just a notch above what the Li’l Rascals were doing: climbing through a window to play basketball in the school gym, taking empty soda bottles from the back of the Pepsi Cola bottling plant to the front and selling them for two cents each. (Convenience stores only gave you a penny.)
We – like the swallows returning each year to Capistrano, or like Frankie Beverly & Maze or The Grateful Dead returning to your local amphitheater during their annual summer concert tours – appeared each summer from ages 13 to 15 in Richmond County Juvenile Court.
It’s lost to history what specific crime we were charged with as we stood in front of a juvenile court judge on this particular summer day.
As always, we’d spent the weeks since our arrest re-rediscovering religion, going to church and promising The Almighty “If you get us out of this jam without being sent to Morrison Training School, I’ll never steal another Nab from the teachers’ lounge.”
I also spent almost every night and day leading up to court listening endlessly to Kris Kristofferson’s song Why Me, Lord with its plaintive refrain “Lord help me Jesus…”
(I may still have that 45 rpm, because you never know.)
We had friends who’d been sent to training school and they let us know in explicit detail that it was no place we wanted to be.
It usually took the judge about two minutes to look at our rap sheet and give us a stern tongue-lashing, not even probation. What awaited us at home was even worse.
As veterans of juvenile court proceedings, we sensed that something was different this time. Our ragtag group of friends – there were seven of us and we as adults dubbed ourselves, quite accurately, the Seriously Stupid 7 – stood before the judge and waited. And waited.
After several minutes of looking at our records and looking up at us, looking at our records and looking back at us, he finally looked up and zeroed in on me – the biggest, tallest and, possibly, dumbest – of the group.
“What,” he thundered, “is your big ass doing in here?”
Somewhere in a far-off galaxy, the laughs that erupted in the courtroom that day are still floating around, bouncing off satellites and distant planets. For sure, they’re still floating around in my head.
He looked genuinely disappointed when he realized I was only 15 and couldn’t be sent to big people’s court.
If we court veterans were that frightened and traumatized by appearing before a black-robed judge, imagine how a six-year-old baby would feel?
We, unfortunately, don’t have to imagine.
North Carolina is the only state in the country where six-year-olds can be tried in juvenile court. In an infuriating, heart-rending story, Virginia Bridges of the News & Observer wrote about a six-year-old child who was arrested for plucking a tulip from a yard while waiting for the school bus.
Go ahead: read that again.
In that story, Bridges quotes Jay Corpening, a New Hanover County chief district court judge, asking “Should a child that believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy be making life-altering decisions?”
The answer, of course, is “no.”
The National Center for Juvenile Justice, the oldest juvenile justice research group in the country, recommends the age at which delinquent children should be brought before a judge in juvenile court be raised to 14.
As something of an expert, I agree. That is the age at which children can begin to understand legal consequences and repercussions for their actions.
My buddies and I knew, after a time, that what we were doing was wrong and could carry dire consequences, but a six-year-old?
Pictured here are the Seriously Stupid 7 minus 4.
Any society that can’t deal with children between the ages of six and 13 without arresting them and hauling them into court is in serious trouble. Frederick Douglass said it best: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Don't take just Frederick's word for it, though. Recall, if you will, the words of that noted 20th Century criminologist, Elvis, in his song In The Ghetto:
People don't you understand/a child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man someday.
Take a look at you and me/Are we too blind to see
Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?
Or, as in North Carolina, do we just treat 'em like li'l bitty adults when they turn six?