Imagine this: It's the second week in March, 2000, just days after the election. A fifteen-year-old boy named Alonza Thomas walks into a convenience store wearing a bandanna over his mouth and nose. He's carrying a gun. He places the gun against the clerk's chest and demands money. Another clerk tackles the boy and a struggle ensues in which the gun is fired leaving a tidy hole in the store rooftop. Plaster and dust sprinkles on the combatants while the boy is subdued.
Here are the facts: It is the boy's first crime. His record is as clean as an upscale restaurant. He is alone. No one was hurt.
Well, here are “my facts” based on this information: He chose to walk into a store wearing a bandanna to hide his identity. He also chose to carry a gun, a deadly weapon. (He is only 15 years old and decides he’s going to use a gun to intimidate or hurt another human being.) He sticks or jabs the gun in the clerk’s chest and demands money. As another clerk tackles him, a struggle ensues and the gun goes off. And everyone involved is damned lucky that no one was killed or maimed.
Stephen Elliott continues:
Alonza pleads guilty to second degree robbery, admits to a personal firearm use violation, petitions for a remand to juvenile court. But there is a problem. The laws have been changed. March 2000 is an off-election. The voters of California have just passed the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act of 1998, AKA - Proposition 21.
Quick education. Proposition 21 has two primary extensions. The first takes crimes where the presumption was that a child would be tried as an adult and removes the discretion of the prosecutor and the court, mandating the youth enter into the adult correctional system. The second, and here is where Alonza Thomas comes in, takes crimes committed by juveniles where the child could be tried as an adult but the presumption is that they would be tried as children, because they are children, because as a society we know what a child is, we know the difference between a child and an adult and the potential of youth, it takes these cases and allows the prosecutor to file the case in adult court, if the prosecutor so desires. And this is what happens to Alonza Thomas.
It's really not so complicated. A fifteen-year-old boy sets off to commit his first crime. He's a bumbling criminal, his chances of success were never good. Where are his friends? There is evidence of psychological trauma, but isn't there always? Who is this young Jesse James and where did he get his gun? Who cares? The boy is sentenced to thirteen years in adult prison. There will be no school, no rehabilitation.......(He is ) not even eligible for education courses offered to adults because the child populations has to be kept separate from the adult population until they turn eighteen, at which point they are mainlined into the system. There is no doubt Alonza will come out worse then he went in.
Well, I was robbed at gunpoint last year by, what I described at the time, as a 15 - 20 year old Hispanic male. I was late to work that morning. As I turned onto our street where our office was located, the would-be assailant was walking in the middle of my driving lane. I sized him up right away. A young guy like that at 9:30 a.m. on a Friday should be at work or at school. As I passed him, I knew I had passed him too closely and I felt mean, vicious anger directed at me. I knew I had to get into my office up the block before he met me at the door out of sheer timing. As I pulled up to park I was gathering everything I needed to take into work and the thought of the kid on the street left my mind. Poof! This was my unconscious decision that would change my life.
I made the mistake of getting out of my car. And as I came around the front of my car there he was, casually walking down the sidewalk. Hands in his pockets, faded jeans too big, puddled down on his tennis shoes, a winter coat two sizes too big with the hood up over his head. And in one split second -- 1/4 of a second, his head turned and his eyes from underneath that hood met mine. I saw his body language change -- he turned on his heels and came at me. And in that moment I knew I was about to experience something that I’ve always thought about. That a lot of women think about. A violent person, his only intention, to do me harm.
We were completely alone on the street. He was screaming. He was profane. His spit flying in my face. His face was so close to my face that his pretty brown eyes and his white teeth are burned into my memory. He was violent. He was raging. At that moment in my life I was facing down violence personified.
He pulled a black gun from his pocket as he continued to scream and swear at me. He pointed the gun at my head. “Looking down the barrel of a gun” is a cliche, but when it happens to you, it is an original, terrifying truth.
I cannot write sentences well enough to truly make you feel what it is like to have a gun pointed at your head. To know that all they have to do is pull a trigger and you could die. It is utterly terrifying. This is my “flashback” moment that can make me cry a year later -- sometimes out of the blue -- as it’s so easy for me to imagine -- and to hear that violent gun going off.
My entire life did not flash before my eyes, but the face of my son did. And I threw my purse at him as hard as I could, hitting him in the chest. This shocked him. But as he was gathering everything up that had fallen out on the sidewalk, he continued to scream at me and point the gun.
Every cell in my body was leaning to the right, trying to get away from him. He was irrational, still screaming, but there was no where for me to run.
He had the gun. He was in control. And as I begged him to leave me alone, he all of a sudden decided to do just that. He ran away. Not quickly though. The memory of his confidence as he ran away still disturbs me.
Within the next 24 hours after this robbery, I considered all of the possibilities for this kid. In my state, there is a mandatory 7 or 8 year jail term if you are convicted of a gun crime. I knew immediately that if he were arrested and convicted, he would come out of jail a worse threat to society than he is right now.
I figured he had to be from bad circumstances -- why else would he have chosen this sort of lifestyle? I wondered about his mother. This boy with such beautiful eyes? How could she not care more for him than to let him end up this way?
For the next three months, every time there was a murder in the city, they would call me to come and look at mug shots. That experience in and of itself was enough to make me lose my mind.
I quickly lost confidence in the detective assigned to my case. I believe to this day that I could have found this kid, given all of the circumstances surrounding the investigation that I won’t get into in this post. In my short experience with the criminal justice system, I observed a million and one problems.
I agree with you that a 15 year old, first time offender should not be tried as an adult. It is beyond belief that we do not even attempt rehabilitation. I agree with your statement, “There is no doubt Alonza will come out worse then he went in.” And I appreciate that you are an advocate for kids like this. God knows they need someone on their side.
But you have to consider the victims of crime. Your arguments would be stronger if you did.
Your simple facts: His record is as clean as an upscale restaurant. No one was hurt.
These statements are very misleading and arrogant. The “upscale restaurant” crack is flippant and degrading to the victims. Because when there’s a person -- no matter their age -- using a gun, making a threat -- it’s not only hurtful, it is destructive. And remains destructive for years after the incident.
The kid who robbed me not only stole my purse that held irreplaceable pictures of my child, he stole my confidence, my freedom of movement, my trust and my sense of safety.
Victims of crime deserve that recognition.
Oh, and by the way -- I don't sleep that well at night anymore.