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Criminal records in the District of Columbia are sealed for juvenile offenders. In short, no one can see the records of individuals who are tried as youths, and they are not obligated to tell anyone about it.
It’s a clean slate — in theory — for young men like Shawn.
This is the first week of Shawn’s new life. He’s wearing a purple shirt, tie, grey slacks, and sneakers. In the tattered backpack he’s carrying, there are shiny dress shoes. He’s waiting for an interview at the District Department of Transportation.
Shawn has just been released from secure detention. What he did to land himself in court happened 3 years ago. But, he says it feels like it was 2 seconds ago. As he talks about it, his breath changes, and his eyes dart around, while the scene replays in his mind.
“When I was 14, I stole a car,” he says. “For no reason.”
He was in the car with two buddies, and the police started chasing them. He drove onto a basketball court to make a quick turnaround, and hit a pole. “The boy in the back flew out the car with the door, I thought he died. [He] broke his rib and his collarbone. The airbag knocked both Shawn and the front passenger out, and it burned the skin off Shawn’s face.
Shawn went to jail, and got put on probation for 6 months. Two months before his probation was over, Shawn got caught in another stolen car. His probation was extended, and one day while going to visit his probation officer, Shawn got into a fight with a police officer. That incident took him from group homes to a secure detention facility called New Beginnings, located in Laurel, Md.
New Beginnings is known for the individual attention each offended gets while detained. “They try their best to not make you feel like you're in a detention center. They remind you of it, they don't bring you into total comfort, but they try to teach you more than they punish you,” says Shawn.
New Beginnings can handle just 66 people at a time. Shawn finished his high school credits, and received a diploma. Something he says he never would have done if he were still on the streets. In his spare time, he completed certification programs in barbering and culinary arts.
The staff helped him apply to colleges. He’s been accepted to Northampton Community College, and is waiting to hear from two more schools. He will start classes in January.
Every minute was used to teach, Shawn says. Even when he thought he was taking a break. “We had this one staff named Mr. Kearney. I'm a basketball player, so when I played basketball, he was on the sidelines talking trash. He like 'yeah, he gonna have to learn how to not have rabbit ears to the sidelines'”
Shawn had a session every day where kids talked about going home to their old neighborhoods, and avoiding old habits. Now that he’s out, those conversations have a whole new meaning. “I don't know what it is about down there”, he says, “but they sure do teach a lot.”
[Music: Juvenile Offender: "Feeling Good" by Nina Simone from Nina Simone]