Human Lives at Crossroads
We stood together in that aisle and caught up. Carlos, now 17, said he was back in a regular high school after finishing a probation run school program. Still on juvenile probation, he now worked part time at Safeway to support himself and his family. He smiled widely as he shared his accomplishments. I shook his hand again, told him I was proud of him and asked that he keep in touch.The cashier handed me the receipt. I gathered my groceries and headed to the exit of the downtown San Jose Safeway store. I heard a voice from behind me, “Mr. Khan?” I turned and discovered my former client, Carlos, from my days as a public defender in Santa Clara County's juvenile court. I immediately recognized him although he stood a little taller and heavier with a fuller mustache than when I last saw him over a year ago in court. He donned black pants, a polo shirt and a Safeway apron accompanied by his name tag. I exclaimed “Carlos!” and extended my hand to shake his.
We stood together in that aisle and caught up. Carlos, now 17, said he was back in a regular high school after finishing a probation run school program. Still on juvenile probation, he now worked part time at Safeway to support himself and his family. He smiled widely as he shared his accomplishments. I shook his hand again, told him I was proud of him and asked that he keep in touch.
I sat in my car and reflected on Carlos. I met him in 2012 in my first weeks assigned to represent minors in juvenile court. Just 14, he was detained in juvenile hall after being arrested for a felony assault upon another minor with a bat. Standing barely over 5 feet, Carlos was small in stature but mature in presence and understanding. He asked insightful questions about his options. He grasped complicated legal issues.
Our overture to have him released fell upon the judge's deaf ears. The DA, unwilling to reduce the serious charge, prompted Carlos, at my urging, to fight the case at a court trial (no juries in juvenile court, unfortunately). After a trial that lasted all of one afternoon, the same judge quickly found the felony assault charge true. At disposition (essentially juvenile sentencing), the judge placed Carlos on probation and finally released him back to his mother Rose after over a month locked up. The judge, at that hearing, asked Carlos what he wanted to do when he grew up. Carlos replied, “I want to be a doctor.” The judge, pleasantly surprised, encouraged Carlos to work and fight for that dream.
Over my next two and half years in juvenile court, Carlos would often return, picking up new charge after new charge, in and out of juvenile hall. Residential burglary. Gun possession. Probation violations. His voice grew deeper and his body taller as my file grew thicker and his rap sheet longer. Case after case, one court appearance after another, I'd be there with Carlos and his mother. When his name would pop up on my case list for a particular morning, I'd shake my head in exasperation. “Not Carlos, again,” I'd sigh.
As we sat together in juvenile hall interview rooms, I'd share my disappointment with Carlos. “You're better than this,” I would tell him. I'd do my best to advise him, asking him to make better decisions, to refocus on his education and ambitions. On one occasion, the same judge, not remembering his prior interaction with Carlos, asked him again what he wanted to do. This time, Carlos said, “I'm thinking of being a mechanic.” Months in the juvenile justice system, coupled with life as a Hispanic male in San Jose, had perhaps eroded Carlos' aspirations. Startled and frustrated at the change in his response, I reminded both Carlos and the judge of his previous ambition of becoming a doctor. Much too soon for such dreams to be forgotten and replaced.
Days later after seeing Carlos, I trekked to visit an adult client at the County Main Jail in San Jose. As I walked in, a woman walking out yelled out, “Hi!” It was the mother of different former juvenile client, Adam. She gave me a warm, big hug and quietly confided in me; Adam, now 19, was serving a double digit sentence for serious crimes and set to be transported to state prison. She had just visited him in jail. She stammered and mentioned that Adam had a newborn son. She shared that Adam had grown up without a father and that her grandson would now grow up without his. As we parted, I asked Adam's mother to let me know if there was anything I could do for her, Adam or his baby.
As I navigated the jail to see my client, Adam remained on my mind. Like Carlos, Adam was a recurring juvenile court participant. Adam, a tall, lean, handsome African-American male, kept his head down whenever we'd talk or appear in court, embarrassed and remorseful about the conduct that led him to judicial scrutiny. Equipped with a deep voice, Adam spoke in respectful terms, rarely raising his volume or talking back even when his mother would lash out at him for his repeated misbehaviors. His tremendous manners didn't match his rap sheet. Adam, last I saw him, reassured me, his mother and the judge that he'd do better.
In January of this year, my supervisors moved me out of juvenile court and assigned me to represent adults. I didn't get to say goodbye to Carlos or Adam. Odds were that I wouldn't see either of them again. Within this one memorable week, though, I reconnected with both, albeit in very different ways. I was blessed to hear Carlos' voice, not calling upon me from a holding cell but instead in that Safeway aisle. At a little past 5pm on that Wednesday, Carlos wasn't in juvenile hall. He was free, working, thriving. Maybe that apron and name tag might one day develop into a labcoat and hospital badge.
Unlike Carlos, I didn't get to hear Adam's voice; instead I heard the pain in his mother's. I didn't get to see Adam again. He was locked away behind jail walls, caged, shackled, convicted. Another young black man lost into the abyss of prison, another father absent from his young son's life. No apron or name tag for Adam; instead a prison uniform and a mugshot laden wrist band.
Carlos and Adam, stark reminders of the human lives at crossroads and at stake in our juvenile courts.
Sajid A. Khan is a Public Defender in San Jose, CA. Reach him via email at email@example.com or Twitter @thesajidakhan.