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Until just a few years ago, D.C.'s juvenile justice system was known for overcrowding and violence. But after reforms in 2009, the number of kids making repeated trips through juvenile detention is on the decline.
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. 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," says Marquis. "We used to compete, like race up and down the street. It was a competition-type thing. It was a sport back then. We weren't trying to do anything wrong. We didn't see anything wrong. Without too much guidance, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
He didn't have a lot of guidance from family growing up. His mother went to prison when Marquis was 8. 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. So this was my time to choose, OK, 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 and 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 who don't have the same drive or same interests as me, I really don't find myself dealing with them."
Part of what helped Marquis make that decision was meeting with a mentor, a young law student named 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'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 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 at D.C.'s youth detention center, where he himself was under lock and key just a few years ago.
[Music: "Criminals" by T. Bone Burnett from The Criminal Under My Own Hat]
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