EPIC Stakeholders discuss the consequences of juvenile crime

  • Lewis Ford, who recently was released from prison after serving five years, spoke about his time incarcerated during the May 29 meeting. PHOTO COURTESY OF NAFISAH LEWIS

  • Words of wisdom: Deputy District Attorney George Mosee Jr. is responsible for the prosecution of juvenile offenders in Philadelphia. He explained how juveniles may be prosecuted for adult crimes during a recent EPIC Stakeholders meeting. PHOTO COURTESY OF NAFISAH LEWIS

Nafisah Lewis wants kids to know how bad be­ing bad can be. So the North­east EPIC Stake­hold­ers co­ordin­at­or ar­ranged for some people to tell them.

A cor­rec­tions work­er, a pro­sec­utor, a former pris­on lifer, a man re­cently re­leased from pris­on and a former ju­ven­ile of­fend­er told neigh­bor­hood kids crowded in­to the base­ment of the Second Baptist Church of Frank­ford how they really don’t know the truth or the con­sequences of get­ting in­to trouble with the law. 

It’s go­ing to be sum­mer, Lewis said dur­ing the Stake­hold­ers’ May 29 ses­sion, and without the struc­ture of school, some kids aren’t go­ing to make it through.

“Some will be be­hind bars and some will be six feet un­der,” she said bluntly.

Kids, no mat­ter how tough they think they are, are not pre­pared for pris­on, said Michelle Rivera, who has worked in both adult and ju­ven­ile jails.

She said she has seen young kids do­ing time for crimes like murder. “They were ba­bies … They were tough on the streets, and at night they were cry­ing like ba­bies,” she said. “They’re try­ing to be tough when they’re scared.”

“You are locked in a room with oth­er girls or boys you don’t know,” she said. “You’re told when to get up and when to get in line … You have to share bath­rooms … Free­dom is com­pletely taken away.”

It’s not a badge of hon­or to be in jail, she said. “You might not have much, but you do have your free­dom. Don’t give it away to any­one.”

Lewis Ford told the kids he knows all too well what it is to be in­side look­ing out. He’s been out of jail for just a few weeks, he said. He had spent the last five years in state pris­on.

“From 15 to 26, I was on the streets, selling drugs,” he said. And then he went to jail. “I didn’t come home un­til I was 31 … Think of all the time I wasted.”

What he had val­ued be­fore, he said, wasn’t worth it. 

“The things I glor­i­fied be­fore al­most des­troyed my whole fam­ily,” he said. “What I did was harm­ing the whole com­munity.”

Work­ing for a liv­ing, even though it’s hard, is be­ing tough, he said, not car­ry­ing a gun, selling drugs, des­troy­ing the com­munity.

Steve Black­burn told the kids he is the as­sist­ant dir­ect­or of com­munity ser­vices for Car­son Val­ley Chil­dren’s Aid.

“But I’m not speak­ing to you in that ca­pa­city,” he said. “I am a formerly con­victed per­son.”

Black­burn said he was sen­tenced to life in pris­on in 1976 for his part in a shoot­ing. 

“I was blessed to have my sen­tence com­muted in 1990,” he said softly. “But I want you young folks to hear me: You don’t have to kill any­body to get a life sen­tence.”

He said he was just with someone who gunned some­body else down. The gun­man im­plic­ated Black­burn and took a deal. Jur­ors found Black­burn guilty and then de­cided if he were to get life in pris­on or death.

“I know guys who got 40-plus years in pris­on and they didn’t shoot any­body,” he said. 

Black­burn since got ad­vance de­grees, he told the stu­dents, but he still has to give a ur­ine sample to the pa­role board to prove he’s drug free.

Everything he’s ac­com­plished since his re­lease doesn’t mat­ter to the pa­role board. “It don’t mean noth­ing when it comes to that pee.”

Away for more than a dec­ade and a half, life passes you by; things hap­pen so quickly out­side pris­on, he said. When he got out, he didn’t know what an ATM ma­chine was, he said. He saw a friend get money from a ma­chine and was im­pressed. “I said, ‘Can I try that?’ ”

But the time lost in the past is noth­ing com­pared to what is lost to a pris­on­er after he or she is re­leased, he said.

It’s against the law to dis­crim­in­ate against someone be­cause of race or eth­ni­city, Black­burn said, but it is leg­al to dis­crim­in­ate be­cause of a crim­in­al re­cord.

“The ac­tions you take now will fol­low you around the rest of your life,” he cau­tioned. 

If you deal with life without get­ting in­to trouble, you don’t have to find any of this out, he said, adding people have to be wary of mak­ing bad choices.

“There are a lot of traps out here,” Black­burn said. 

Lewis’s 22-year-old son, Saleem, had been in ju­ven­ile de­ten­tion and has no in­ten­tion of ever be­ing locked up again.

“That was it for me,” he said, but ad­ded he has friends who saw be­ing locked up as ju­ven­iles as a step­ping stone in life.

“One second can ru­in your life,” he said. “I see people I grew up with who have life sen­tences … they’re nev­er com­ing home.”

Deputy Dis­trict At­tor­ney George Mosee Jr. spoke about the ju­ven­ile justice sys­tem dur­ing a March Stake­hold­ers meet­ing, Lewis said, but there wer­en’t many kids at that meet­ing, so she asked the pro­sec­utor to come back last week.

“If I ever didn’t feel like the main speak­er, it’s to­night,” he said.

Mosee said the ju­ven­ile justice sys­tem is set up to help kids get back on track with their lives if they want to, but it is not a for­giv­ing pro­cess for re­peat of­fend­ers. And if a ju­ven­ile 15 or older com­mits an adult crime, he is go­ing to be tried as an adult. There are more people serving life sen­tences in Pennsylvania for crimes they com­mit­ted as minors than any­where else in the coun­try, he said.

Many ju­ven­iles be­lieve they can’t be tried as adults or face adult con­sequences for murder and oth­er ser­i­ous crimes. There are de­grees of of­fenses.

• A kid who as­saults an­oth­er and steals his bike might get sen­tenced to com­munity ser­vice or time in a ju­ven­ile fa­cil­ity. If he does it a second time and if he’s 15-years-old and ad­ju­dic­ated de­lin­quent, the young crim­in­al goes in­to the adult justice sys­tem.

• If he’s 15 and pulls a gun on some­body dur­ing a rob­bery, for ex­ample, he might be look­ing at five to 10 years in a pris­on for youth­ful of­fend­ers.

• If he’s 15 and is the lookout for some­body else com­mit­ting an armed rob­bery, but he isn’t the per­son with the gun, he might not get man­dat­ory pris­on time. The per­son with the gun is fa­cing tri­al in the adult sys­tem. If the per­son with the gun is 18, he’s look­ing at 3.5 to sev­en years. But he can get up to 47 years, Mosee said.

• If the 15-year-old is an ac­com­plice in a crime in which someone else kills some­body, he’s look­ing at life in pris­on, Mosee said.

“You have to learn this today,” Lewis told the kids. “This is your fu­ture.”

North­east EPIC Stake­hold­ers’ next meet­ing will be at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 26, at the Second Baptist Church of Frank­ford, Mead­ow and Mul­berry streets. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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