On a hot summer day in 2012, Jamal Smith* and two friends robbed three different groups of people at gunpoint. Some were white and some were black. Some were old, and some young. They had nothing in common except that they were each undoubtedly terrified to have a gun in their face, and they cooperated with his demands. But he was scared also. As he says now, “I hated it. I was scared that they might have a gun, or I might use mine. I knew I was making them scared too.” But he was desperate. Desperate to earn for the gang he was in, desperate to put food on the table for his younger siblings. He could not figure out another way.

Whether through luck, fear, or the grace of God, or maybe a combination of all three, Jamal never fired his gun that day. His victims were all strangers to him but one of the witnesses to the last robbery recognized him from school and tipped off the police. When he committed these robberies, and was arrested later that week and charged as an adult, Jamal was only 14 years old.    

He had grown up in a stressed and low-income neighborhood in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia with his mom and two siblings. His Dad, who eventually fathered a total of 12 children with different women, was never around. He frequently made plans to see Jamal but rarely, if ever, followed through. Eventually, Jamal says, “I just gave up on him. I had packed my suitcase and waited at the door too many times without him showing up.” He goes on to say that, “All I saw growing up was alcohol and drugs and violence. There were no role models.”

With his arrest, all those years of parental neglect, poverty, and poor choices finally caught up with Jamal.

When asked about the armed robberies, Jamal says, “I had to support myself and my sister.  I had to earn for the gang. We needed money and food. I am not saying it was right but that is what some people in my neighborhood did.”

While schools can often provide a respite for children coming from unstable homes and unsafe neighborhoods, his school provided no such relief for Jamal. His teachers did not express an interest in him. Nobody told him he was smart or could achieve whatever he set his mind to. He had no support system.

By the 8th grade, Jamal was regularly truant. Although schools in Virginia are legally obligated to track down youth who are truant and bring them to court if necessary, Jamal does not remember any of that ever happening. Nobody seemed to care, or even notice, that he was no longer in the building.  

They did make him repeat 8th grade, however. Early in his second time through 8th grade he smoked weed before school and came to school high. He was suspended for this and sent to an alternative school where, as he recalls, he did not do much nor get much in the way of help. Instead of paying more attention to him when his truancy and drug use were obvious red flags, it appears that school officials paid less.

And then came that summer when he engaged in those robberies, was arrested, and faced trial and treatment as an adult. He eventually entered guilty pleas and received a 34 year sentence with all but 8 years suspended. The Judge ordered him to be sentenced to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) until he was 21 and then serve the remaining two years in the Virginia Department of Corrections. The total time he was to serve constituted more than half of the life he had led to that point. His guilty pleas also left him with adult felony convictions on his record. And he hadn’t even started high school yet.

Jamal Smith is now 23 years old. As he sits with me in a restaurant near Petersburg, Virginia, he shows the same soft-spoken, thoughtful qualities that he did when I first met him 4 years ago when I was the Director of the DJJ and he was a resident at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, one of the youth corrections facilities operated by DJJ. Now, he is finishing his last year of community college and has plans to continue to a four-year college. He is thinking of maybe becoming a social worker, someone who can help a kid like him stay on the right path.

Ironically, it was during his time at DJJ when his luck began to change. While confined, he became a model resident, and was in one of the first units to convert to a new way of working with youth in which all of the staff remain consistent, are part of treatment, and engage with the youth throughout the day. With consistent and dedicated staff, he connected to adults who cared about him. As Jamal recounts, “It was the first time in my life I had a support system behind me.”

He excelled. He helped younger residents whose behavior and impulsivity got them in trouble. He was a founding member and the second President, of a constitution-based Student Government Association. He received his high-school diploma and started taking college classes. By the time he was released, he had earned close to 20 college credits, and staff helped him apply to community college.  

The sentencing judge, at a hearing prior to his transfer to the Department of Corrections, was so impressed with his progress that he suspended the two years Jamal was to serve in adult prison, granting his release the day before his 21st birthday. When his family failed to help, DJJ staff took it upon themselves to help him move into his dorm room at community college, buy his books, and get settled.  

As he recounts his story, a couple of things are clear. He is remorseful and full of regret for the pain and fear that he caused others. He is also grateful for the position he is in now — in school, focused, and with an opportunity to advance.

On the one hand, Jamal’ story is one of personal success and redemption. He got second chances, made the most of these opportunities, and is now poised to finish college.  

But, as he says, “I wish it did not take a negative to get me to this positive. I wish it could have been two positives.”

Looking at his situation through this lens, his is also a story of failure. 

We know that mothers and fathers do not always parent the way they probably wish they could, or their kids need, and that some children live in neighborhoods with too much violence, access to drugs, and despair. As a society we set up safety nets to support children in those situations. For Jamal, they all failed. 

The school system provided less support when he clearly needed more. No community based organizations stepped in to provide necessary assistance. Collectively, they let a kid with the ability to attend and complete college fall through the cracks. As a result, he ended up disconnected from positive support systems and instead connected to the streets and gangs where he eventually victimized others. 

The criminal justice system also failed him. Even though he had limited previous court involvement, the prosecutor in his case elected to try him as an adult for crimes he committed at 14, a decision which led to almost 7 years of confinement and the barriers of adult felony convictions on his record. Under Virginia law, and many like it in states across the nation, the prosecutor in his case could make this kind of decision without any judicial oversight. 

Not only was the approximately seven years more than Jamal needed to serve to get his life back on track, it cost Virginia taxpayers close to one million dollars for all the years he spent with DJJ, and left him with felony convictions on his record which are now barriers to further employment.

It is not that Jamal is not responsible for his actions. He is, and he owns this. He does not complain. But we are responsible too. In communities across the country there are bright-eyed and talented young men and women just like Jamal, living in damaged neighborhoods, and attending school systems without the resources to make sure they find and cultivate every child’s gifts and potential. 

Unless and until we commit the time, money, and human capital to these communities and the children and families who live there, more people will get hurt, more lives will be ruined, and we will deprive ourselves of the contributions of so many.

Fortune smiled that day in 2012 when Jamal did not fire his gun, and now, thanks to his hard work and the efforts and dedication of staff at DJJ, Jamal just might make it. And when he does, we will all benefit from the gifts that this sensitive and thoughtful young man has to offer. But there are thousands of others out there who are just like Jamal, and whose life stories are waiting to be written. If Jamal’s story tells us anything, it is that we need to help them too.

* Jamal Smith is a fictitious name used to protect the identity and future of this very real, young man.

Andrew Block served as the Director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) from April 2014 until April 2019.

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