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Waste Not, Want Not...Have Not

I mentioned recently, in a private email to someone I think of as a friend, although I’ve never met him in person and possibly never will, that

I’m still a CDL [criminal defense lawyer] even though I live in a town that considers us slime and openly treats the few who fight as such. I used to take pride in the fact that people who liked me would marvel at how certain others could hate me so much; it was proof I was doing my job, and some even said as much. But it does wear on you some, especially when you realize that a lot of those who want to teach you a lesson about fighting so hard for your clients are judges.

But there actually is a group of people who are treated worse even than criminal defense attorneys: those we call, rightly or wrongly, “criminals.”

I’ve mentioned before that a large part of my criminal defense practice is occupied with defending juveniles. Children.

With increasing frequency, and ferocity, our society wages war on them on a daily basis and my job is to try, the best I can, to shepherd them through it. The biggest part of what I do is to work to provide them with what, for many of us, is “common knowledge.” Because the war we wage against them actually starts for many of them even before they officially arrive at the doors of the criminal “justice” system in this country. Often, it is a multi-generational attack which has already stripped them of membership in what used to be incongruously called “polite society” (because our society is anything but polite).

Many of these children these days — as opposed to when I was growing up — arrive here for the same kind of “ordinary” activities I and my peers engaged in when we were children. This includes many of the judges and not a few prosecutors, although many of the prosecutors today are barely past childhood themselves. Thus, I can’t really say that they’ve yet grown up; I certainly can’t include them in the group in which I grew up, back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Ordinary people, if they could bring themselves to look, would (I hope!) be surprised to know just how many children are handcuffed — shackled, even, with full-body shackles — and brought to courtrooms every day for such terrifying crimes as calling one another names, cussing one another out, getting into fist-fights, or just being outside after dark.

To be sure, there are those who are brought in for much more serious things, like drive-by shootings, which were virtually unheard of where and when I grew up, or sex crimes, or even murder.

Yet even in those situations, it’s not so clear that these kids — we’re talking about children, people! — should be treated this way. Seriously, should a 12-year-old child be arrested and charged with felony strong-arm robbery for punching another child in the face and taking his bicycle? When I was a kid, if I’d done that, I’d get my ass kicked, among other things, but I wouldn’t have been arrested, shackled, brought to court and charged with a crime which, if I were an adult, would be considered a serious strike under California’s “three strikes” laws.

And let’s make no mistake about this: once we’ve saddled that 12-year-old with that kind of a charge, we don’t stop there. Ever after, he’s treated as human waste.

Oh, sure, we’ll pretend that we’re making an attempt at rehabilitating him, usually by locking him up in a small room and refusing to allow him access to books, counseling, or anything else that might make a positive difference in his life. Our juvenile “justice” “campuses” — as they’re euphemistically called here in California — excel at teaching one thing: how to get used to being incarcerated.

Because we’re going to do nothing to assist the majority of those children in ever breaking out of the cycle of freedom-incarceration-freedom-incarceration until we’ve got enough to keep them incarcerated without even the pretense that they’ll ever be free again.

As if they ever were.

I’m not saying kids who actually commit terrible crimes should be treated to ice cream and a night at the movies. I do believe, though, that the process of throwing kids away passes the point of no return when that 12-year-old is put into shackles and dragged into a courtroom under armed guard. The message, at that point, is already clear: you are dangerous, you are not to be treated as human, we do not want you.

What those kids really need is an education of a different sort, but we can’t do that because it costs money. In fact, it costs — according to one guesstimate I read in the article that inspired this current post (update 2015: article has been deleted, breaking the link), which I don’t think is that far off — at least fifty times less than what we’ll probably spend in order to teach the kid that he really is just a piece of shit, and we don’t want him.

Why our society has evolved into such a destructive, hate-filled, unthinking, systemically-warped thing is something I simply cannot understand. In some ways, I think I really am a relic of the past, although the past definitely had problems of its own.

The fact is, though, that we, the People, claiming to want to build a more perfect union — we actually rely upon our ability to trash huge segments of our population. Maybe it’s because of the proliferation of people and the development of the modern police force, modern correctional institutions, and the modern “justice” system. After all, all three of those systems are parasitic: they allow a large portion of the population to have good lives by using them to ensure that others do not.

We start this process with our children. Well, okay, not necessarily ourchildren: rather, we usually use the children of those we’ve beaten down in the past. After all, they haven’t fought back in generations in any large numbers, so there’s a willing herd from which our police officers, our correctional officers, our judges, court clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors and other attorneys can make a decent living without the need to fear any real uprising.

And this, I think, explains why, as they grow up, we continue to deny them the possibility of an education — we deny them access to “common knowledge” — because if they were to learn, not only would they revolt, but we, too, might be revolted by what we have done.

But for us, it is much easier to destroy than to build. For too many of us, if we waste not these people that we want not, we’d have not.

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