MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now to a more personal coming-of-age story about someone who became an adult after being locked up in D.C.'s juvenile justice system. Until just a few years ago, that system was known for overcrowding and violence. But after reforms in 2009, the number of kids making repeat trips through juvenile detention is going down. Jacob Fenston introduces us to one man who's determined not to end up incarcerated ever again.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
D.C. locks up around 1,000 young people each year. For much of his life, a young man named Marquis was one of them.
I used to have a thing for cars. I used to really like driving and racing.
Marquis, who asked to use only his first name, was 12 when he was first arrested. He and a group of friends were into stealing cars.
Everybody liked driving. We used to compete, you know, race up and down the street. I got an Audi Elite, he had a Honda, you know. So it was like this is competition. It was a sport back then. It really wasn't, as far as like we're trying to do anything wrong. It was just, we didn't see anything wrong, you know. And then when without too much guidance, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
He didn't have a lot of support from family growing up. His mother went to prison when Marquis was eight. He was in foster care until she got out seven years later. The last time Marquis was arrested, he was 16, facing drug charges. He spent nearly two years locked up.
That was kind of like two years out of my childhood that was gone. This was my time to choose where, okay, now I'm 21, what do I do now? Do I continue to do things that got me to where I was at? Or do I better myself and say, okay, this is how I want to do it; this is why I want to do it. I mean, I got goals and dreams and I want to achieve them, and I can't achieve them stealing cars, selling drugs.
He decided it was time to grow up. That means no more racing stolen cars. Instead, he now rides a bike to his job downtown where he does clerical work at a government agency.
I pretty much got a straight-forward itinerary, and it's pretty much to stay focused on my own business, find a stable career, find some education. And hanging out with other people that don't have the same drive or same interests as me, I really don't find myself dealing with them, so, you know, just to make it easier.
Was that sort of hard to -- I mean, because it seems like it's so easy to fall into a habit or if you're, like, friends with certain people, to get back with them?
No. Not really because, like, being away for a year and a half and then coming back, I mean, I was cooling with some of my friends for a little bit, but after awhile I saw where they were going, I saw it was the same thing I was doing before I got locked up and I was like, man, I just gave you two years of my life for that, so why do it again? And part of my plan was, actually, avoid negativity. And it sounds so simple, it sounds so easy, but at the end of the day, it's all around us.
We can walk out of here, someone easily say I got an ounce of weed; you want to do something with it? You know, it's just -- that's where you come to that crossroad. Do I go left, grab it and say okay, I'm going to be with you. Or do I right and say, no, I'm not doing it anymore. It's so easy just to go down the wrong path.
Part of what helped Marquis make that decision at that crossroads was meeting with a mentor, a young law student named Claire Grandison.
MS. CLAIRE GRANDISON
We talked a lot about his goals, and what he wanted to get out of his life. So it was a question of what changes do I need to make in order to have those things happen.
It was weird at first. I was, like, it was a lady. And then I was locked up while she became my mentor. So it's like, when I come home is she really going to be supportive? Is she really going to be there for me?
She was still there and they still meet regularly. It's part of a program called Mentoring Today, which links law students at American University with incarcerated youth. Even though Claire is the mentor, and Marquis is the mentee, they're only a few years apart in age. Claire says the relationship is more of a two-way street.
I only moved to Washington, D.C. for law school. So I was incredibly ignorant of most things about D.C. when I came here. So Marquis has taught me a lot about parts of the city that I never would have known anything about. I've learned about the criminal justice system through his eyes, which I think is a perspective a lot of law students and lawyers lack.
As a law student, she says, she's learned what the juvenile justice system is supposed to do. From Marquis, she's learned it doesn't always work how it's supposed to.
The system isn't always understanding of what it's like to be a teenager or young adult in the system. So these kids are dealing with a lot of challenges at home, with peer pressure, and a lot of their youthful behavior has much more serious consequences once you're involved in the system. So they're not able to make the same kind of mistakes that I would, without consequences.
For Marquis, part of staying on his new path is keeping busy. On top of his job, he also plays in a band, and he's working with Mentoring Today, talking to kids in D.C.'s youth detention center, where he himself was under lock and key just a few years ago. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Time for a break, but when we get back…
MS. ELIZA CLIFFORD
One time we saw these slides of sex positions. And they're like, oh, my God. You really saw that? And I'm like, well, it's useful.
…we'll cover the birds and the bees, as our coming-of-age show continues. That's coming up on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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