I met a young man the other day. He has a criminal record and he finds it hard to get a job. He was not a bad kid, really, just your typical middle-class kid, caught up in the suburban nightmare of booze and drugs and poor normative cues from his social peers, combined with the soul-sapping experience of high school.
The problem is, his criminal career went from spray-painting bad white-boy graffiti on the back of the school, to minor break-ins at the local church. At first, the law was lenient with him - as a Youthful Offender, he was sent off to Family Court, given a slap on the wrist, and told his record would be wiped clean after age 18.
Of course, his parents were furious with him, and he thought they were "assholes" for "making a big deal out of it". But of course, the crimes they charged him with were only the ones he was caught for and he had committed many petty acts of vandalism, thievery, and general mayhem over the years.
Of course, some parents don't get furious. They defend the actions of their criminal child and assume the police and the people complaining about thefts and vandalism are just lying. One mother, where I lived near DC, when her son was caught breaking into cars, explained the 200 car stereos found in her garage as her 15-year-old son's ''car radio business''. Most were damaged to the point of not working. He merely wrecked people's dashboards for no real purpose - and his Mother saw no harm in it.
Getting back to our story, at age 18, he and a friend were trying to shoplift at Wal-Mart, which is a really poor choice for shoplifting, as the Wal-Mart company has more combined experience with shoplifters than you ever will. They saw some lady leave her purse in her cart, and swiped her wallet. They took out the credit cards and went nuts, trying to charge hundreds of dollars of electronic devices, including a game boy and an MP3 player, on the credit card.
And of course, they got caught, and were on camera. It was a crime of stupidity, not a crime of desperation or passion. They were bored middle-class kids with "nothing to do" - or so they thought. And off to jail they went - real adult jail this time. You see, credit card theft is a Felony, and that is some serious business compared to the various misdemeanors they were charged with - and the Family Court they were previously tried in. They were now in the big leagues. Not even out of high school they had really screwed the pooch big time.
The boy's parents didn't have a lot of money for a lawyer, so a public defender was appointed. He negotiated a plea deal. The boy would serve 30 days in jail - on weekends - and have a felony conviction on his record. Weekend jail was, to say the least, frightening for a young man, even a minimum-security jail. And his parents were heartbroken.
But the worst part was not the 30 weeks it took to serve the sentence, but the Felony conviction on his record. He went off to college and did OK in school (smoking more pot and drinking, of course) and in the summers, he would come home and bum around the house. While his friends got summer jobs and bought cars and clothes and stereos, he sat at home, watched TeeVee and smoked more dope.
You see, one of the first questions on the job application form was "Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Felony?" He tried lying on the form once, and got a job with a chain store. That lasted a week, until his background check came back and they fired him.
He graduated from college and bummed around with low-paying jobs in the restaurant field. Even getting these was hard to do, as no one wanted to trust him with a cash register or any serious amounts of money. Eventually, after a decade or so, the impact of it started to wear off, as more people were willing to write it off to "youthful indiscretion." But he never worked in his chosen career, but instead worked in various low-skill or no-skill jobs in the service industry.
And that's where we left him, last I knew. And that is a pretty sad start to a career in life - at the bottom rung with no hope of success. And yet, it all started out very young, and could have been avoided if only he took different paths in life.
And yes, a lot of kids do stupid things as kids - they spray paint a wall or shoplift candy. And the law recognizes that kids can be wildly irresponsible, particularly when influenced by other kids - which is why we have Juvenile Offender status and a Family Court. But you only get one pass in Family Court - maybe two at most. And once you graduate to adult court, well, all bets are off.
And what is tragic is that a lot of young men and women fall into this trap - young men and women of middle-class backgrounds with good educations and great opportunities. And yet they will tell you that they were "bored" when you ask them why they slashed the tires on 50 cars. Bored? And breaking things is interesting and fun? Only to an idiot.
Usually drugs are involved, usually pot. And no, potheads never like to admit to this, but it is true. And this is why most potheads have legal rap sheets that have little or nothing to do with marijuana use itself. And a big part of it, too, is the kids you hang out with. You hang out with potheads, derelicts, and under-achievers, well, chances are, your path in life is going to be like the young man I profiled above.
But it is a choice, not a destiny. And you have to consciously choose to vandalize the school or break into a church or steal a credit card. No one forces you to do so by circumstance. Not middle-class kids, anyway.
I doubt any such kids would read this. After all, there are more interesting things to do, like setting fire to the neighbor's cat. But you'll have to pardon me if I do not weep profusely for people - even young people - who consciously make poor choice after poor choice. One mistake in life is understandable, even acceptable. But when you make it clear that you intend to always choose poorly, well, you will reap what you have sown - and often that is a lifetime of woe.