Published: Mar 13, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Mar 12, 2012 10:32 AM
The frame through which we see, dictates what we see.
For my grandfather, April Fools wasn’t a holiday; it was a life strategy.
A generation or two earlier, the family had donated property on the rear of their large farm for a church, so my grandfather and one of his brothers got wind of a funeral being held there. Huck and Jim (not their real names) took an empty lard can, a fifty-pounder, and poked a hole in the top and bottom. Once the holes were large enough, the boys waxed a hemp rope and forced it through. Pulling the rope against the can made an eerie, disconsolate moan.
It was summer so the church windows were wide open. The boys shinnied up a nearby tree and waited. When the time was right and the mourners revved up, the boys started drawing the rope through the can. Sure enough: an eerie, disconsolate, and very loud, moan.
Grandaddy said mourners poured through the doors and windows, climbing over each other to get out of that church. I had heard this story many times but till now had somehow never thought to ask about the church itself.
“Daddy called it a Holy Roly Church,” Mama answered. “But it was probably Baptist. And you know how they were very superstitious back then.”
They? Suddenly the picture shifted into focus. The family had donated land for the church; its parishioners were superstitious. My frame for the story got a whole lot clearer.
It’s critical to step back and question those frames we take for granted. If I write about a teenager arrested for larceny, what do you imagine? What crime did he commit?
North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically tries all 16-year-olds as adults no matter the offense. Murder or disorderly conduct, the teens enter adult court. This assumption that we need to be tough on teen crime is a frame everyone in our state ought to question. Because the vast majority of crimes these kids are charged with, 94 percent or more, are minor offenses.
This May, we have a chance to bring North Carolina into the age of science and reason by changing this antiquated law. When the statute was enacted 90 years ago, we didn’t understand that the prefrontal cortex and its neuro-buddies aren’t fully developed until we’re about 25. The connections that allow us to weigh consequences and plan for the long-term aren’t mature until then. If you have ever been 16, this isn’t news. I recall my yearly shock at discovering our science projects were due the following week, despite my forgetting to actually conduct any experiments. I think my love of creative writing may have stemmed from those log books.
Another reason to change the law, besides the actual science, is that our schools have police officers issuing tickets to kids for what used to be considered schoolyard behavior or even just teachable moments. We’ll get into criminalizing childhood some other time. Suffice it to say that nowadays 16 and 17 –year-olds with school infractions may well end up in adult court. Remember your mental image of the teen arrested for larceny? What did he do? This particular boy took a bag of Doritos from his school cafeteria. What color do you think he is? Exactly. And now he has a permanent record to contend with. Or how about the boy who got suspended from school because the back of his shirttail was untucked? For verbally protesting his suspension, he now has a disorderly conduct charge. Or the kid who turned in an abandoned backpack to his school office and was charged because the bag contained drugs.
The best policy is to keep kids out of court entirely. There are profound personal and community repercussions to a court appearance. A student who appears in juvenile court during high school is four times as likely to drop out. The economic and social damage from dropping out is enormous. Less expensive, evidence-based alternatives to entanglement in the justice system exist and should be implemented.
But another reason to keep kids out of court is that justice in our state is anything but blind. Race matters. Wealth matters. In some N.C. counties, a black student is four times as likely to be suspended or ticketed for the exact same first offense as a white student. One judge recently said that when a white kid showed up in the courtroom, they glowed like a lightbulb among all those children of color.
In 2007, almost 32,000 16 and17-year-olds entered the adult criminal justice system, many for school-based offenses. If we must send a teen to court, we should at least send them to the juvenile system where those who do need intervention have a chance of getting mental health and substance abuse services, education support and counseling, and the chance for restitution.
It’s critical we question our frames. If a teen is charged with larceny, is he a troublemaker? Dangerous? A threat? We need to ask the questions that lead to real understanding.
Which makes me wonder, did anyone ask the boy who took the Doritos why he had nothing to eat?