Last month, I watched in dismay as Florida prosecutors announced that the 13-year-old who is charged with shooting his teacher on the last day of school would be tried as an adult.
Nathaniel Brazill, barely a teen, now sits in an adult penal facility. Nothing can undo what Nathaniel did, nor restore the life he took. But Nathaniel is a child -- too young to comprehend the gravity of his actions and far too young to be incarcerated in an adult jail.
I should know. I spent 15 years in the adult system for a crime I didn't commit. I was 19 years old and college-bound, a track star with an unblemished record and dreams of being an Olympic medallist when the prison doors clanged shut, and I began serving a life sentence for somebody else's crime.
By the time I was freed, I was 35. I bore deep mental and physical scars from all the things I saw and experienced -- including the loss of several fingers and toes to an incurable disease.
The world of prison was brutal and bleak. But I believe I was put there for a reason. Prison taught me that adult institutions are no place for kids. It also showed me that if we're serious about curbing crime, we have to start early: by taking care of our youth.
I spent my days inside teaching grown men to play sports, get through basic adult education and pass their GEDs. I realized how few of my fellow prisoners saw opportunities outside the prison gates, how few believed that dreams could become reality. I saw that without faith in themselves, education or hope, many felt condemned to the only life they knew: in and out of a prison cell.
By contrast, I was strengthened by the drive, desire and determination my family and track coach had instilled in me. These ``three Ds'' sustained me through my years behind bars, and still do so today.
That's why I've spent my last 18 years of freedom helping at-risk youth to build resilience and follow their dreams. My mission is to prevent every kid I can from following me into the bowels of the beast.
I'm very disturbed by the growing trend of trying more kids as adults. According to a recent study, ``Florida, The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does it Make a Difference?,'' youth tried as adults re-offend more often -- with more serious crimes -- than those tried as juveniles. They're also more likely to be sexually assaulted, beaten, killed or attempt suicide in adult institutions.
Does this surprise you? What do you think happens among men who have murdered, assaulted, maimed, raped, used weapons and been in and out of jail all their lives?
As many as 3,500 kids are locked in adult U.S. jails each day.
This brutalizing effect is nothing new. As early as 1900, reformers recoiled at the revelation that 8-year-olds being abused in adult jails and created the first juvenile court. They envisioned a system that would remove youth from adult facilities and rehabilitate them instead.
That vision has helped millions of kids overcome their transgressions in the last 100 years -- kids like Olympic long-jump champion Bob Beamon, a former gang member; Los Angeleno Scott Filippi, who at 15 shot his abusive mother but went on to join the presidential honor guard; even former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., once declared delinquent for destroying federal property.
Early prevention and intervention, after-school and mentoring care are the best tools for cutting crime, according to a recent study by the American Youth Policy Forum.
Yet from New York to California, we've passed laws to try 11-year-olds as adults, eroded protections that keep kids apart from adults and have kept as many as 3,500 minors locked up in adult prisons on any given day.
My work with youth in the Norwalk Juvenile Detention Center has reinforced my belief that tough talk and threats of doing time aren't enough to turn kids' lives around. They need an escape route from the revolving door between prison and the streets. They need to learn to respect themselves enough to reach higher than the deceptive allure of the street economy.
They need help to heal scars of childhood neglect and abuse. They need to be taught to dream -- and to be offered mentors and resources to help them strive for those dreams.
Our ``get tough'' approach perpetuates a cycle of crime and violence. It's time to invest instead in programs that break that cycle -- programs that help youth to realize their dreams.
John Artis was wrongly convicted
of a triple murder along with Rubin ``Hurricane'' Carter in 1966. After 15 years, he and Carter were exonerated. Artis now works with at-risk youth in Portsmouth, Va.
©2000 Knight Ridder/Tribune