My name is Habeebullah Na’eem Rasheed-Pipkin, I grew up in south Seattle Washington and this is what the Juvenile Justice System means to me. When I was 17, turning 18, my best friend happened to be a kid named Ryan Eastwing*. Ryan and I grew up together. I’ve known him since I was 13. We helped each other through important times and very tough times, in both of our lives. I first met Ryan in middle school; he helped me stop getting bullied. He just wouldn’t allow it. I was super skinny and not coordinated. If anybody was going to beat me up, it was going to be him and I was ok with that. We were friends. Best friends. I tried to teach him how to dance because you couldn’t tell him he couldn’t dance (or couldn’t do anything) so I had to show him. He was confident that way; he wanted to be able to do everything. He taught me how to catch the bus back home from school. We lived down the street from each other ever since I knew him, even when I moved a couple miles down the street Ryan and his family moved down the street from there. We were inseparable. We went to all the same schools growing up but then Ryan got transferred to Ballard High. I was ok with it though because he was doing well; He was a starter on the varsity football team, he was on track to graduate. Then, about 6 months after he moved to Ballard, Ryan was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to 28 and half years in prison.
Okay, let’s slow it down. I want to ask you, the readers: what is justice? Is it correction? Or is it punishment? What’s a suitable punishment? Now let’s talk cake batter, what is this going to be all made up of. Ryan being the child he was (and I emphasize child), lacked the ability to weigh out the consequence of his actions and made a mistake (a treacherous one I might add) and is now in prison. I try not to be biased but do try to look at the bigger picture; as psychologist David Walsh writes, “it is as if a teenager's brain has a fully functional car accelerator but the brakes have not been installed yet (Walsh, 2004, p. 72)., It has been suggested that the non-uniform maturation pattern in which the limbic region (emotions) develops faster than the cortex region (reasoning) may significantly contribute to an increase in risk taking and novelty seeking by youth, particularly young teenagers.” Yes, this may feel like a cop out justification for the family because at the end of the day a life was lost. Regardless, that does not make the statement false. Ideally, my overall concern with the Juvenile Justice System is that the punishments being handed out are arguably up for debate because of the research behind adolescent brain development, prison conditions, and racially disproportionate prosecution rates.
Let’s go back to Ryan. Ryan was from Memphis, Tennessee originally notoriously known for gangster rap and criminal gang activity. Ryan’s two older cousins were both from Hoover, a notorious Seattle gang. That’s how he got introduced into a faulty lifestyle: through bad influences all around him by the people he respected from birth. They showed him the ropes and Ryan being the resourceful person he is, picked up things on his own. Once he thought “this is what I am supposed to be doing”, he did it, just like any other child trying to make people proud. You could ask anybody that have ever known Ryan and they would tell you that he is a super nice guy but you they could also tell you he didn’t play around, especially when it came to feeling disrespected or had anything to do with his family and friends. We were similar in these ways. In the days approaching Ryan’s incarceration, things were normal, you never would have thought this was going to happen. Nobody saw it coming. Not even me. It was a week and a half before my 18th birthday and Ryan had called me regularly but this week he called me a lot more often. I received a message on Facebook where he asked to meet up with me. I went to Bellevue College and had to be home after school and Ballard was too out of the way to risk being disciplined by my parents. Plus, I had already gotten in trouble enough. I told him I would meet him soon, early next week perhaps. I never got to see Ryan before he got locked up and I still haven’t seen him to this day. I’m 21 years old now and we’ve spoken on the phone a couple times. When I see his parents, I ask them to say hello for me and always send him my blessings.
From my knowledge, this is what happened: Ryan got a gun one night, from whom I do not know, he started out by robbing a store where he fled with a bank deposit bag full of cash. Later that night, he pulled the gun on a man and instead of first shooting him he hit him in the head and demanded his phone. The man did not give up the phone. Ryan demanded the phone again and the man said no and told Ryan he was on the phone with the police. Ryan shot the man in the chest and proceeded to take his phone, fleeing to a friend’s house 5 blocks from the location of the shooting. Ryan was on the run for one week until he was apprehended at SeaTac airport on his way to Atlanta. Although I was not there that night I know one thing, Ryan was in a situation where he was scared and looking for a way out of whatever situation he was in. Growing up, he got better grades than me but I had more family support. Ryan’s family was struggling financially. My family however, bought me clothes and made sure I was set up with what I needed. It was different for Ryan, he was taught to go out and get it himself. I believe this is the kind of mentality he had the night he walked up to Safeway in Ballard intending to rob the man for money or valuables. I had started noticing Ryan had a new crowd when he moved. He told me about them and they weren’t the best kids. Things happened quickly; he moved from his parents’ home to his way more lenient cousin’s house. He had so much freedom with no means of work based structure but instead had an environment encouraging violence. Nothing too good could come of the night. Whatever the situation he was in, he needed help and nobody was there for him that night, his new friends weren’t, I wasn’t, his cousins weren’t, nobody was.
In my heart, I know one thing. If people like Ryan could bring back the victims of their crimes, ask for forgiveness, and for a second chance - the answer would be yes, without a doubt. For Ryan, he will spend the rest of his life not experiencing anything but regrets because of his actions. What I am asking you all to think about is: where is the brighter day in that? Ok, so you might be one those individuals that think Ryan is undeserving of a bright day- respectable, understandable, but I want to ask you, where is the CORRECTION in this outcome? When released from prison, Ryan will be a 17 year old boy in an old man’s body. He will have little to no life skills unless the Criminal Justice System reevaluates conditions and corrections, especially involving adolescents. According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), “sadly, many states have ignored the crisis and dysfunction that creates child delinquency and instead have subjected kids to further victimization and abuse in the adult criminal justice system. Children are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult prisons than in juvenile facilities and face increased risk of suicide. EJI believes confinement of children with adults in jails and prisons is indefensible, cruel, and unusual, and it should be banned.” For Ryan, when he gets out, he will most likely have to turn back to crime in order to figure anything out and to remain a stable member of society. Essentially, he was sentenced to death not by lethal injection or electric chair, but to time, rotting overwhelming time with little room for hope. Another question to think about: do two wrongs make a right?
So, I’ve been asking you all a lot of questions and now I want to give you some of my answers. A possible solution for the current Criminal Justice System could be (and should be necessary) to appoint two judges to cases (both juvenile and adult) where both judges come from different racial backgrounds. In the Juvenile Justice System, I think removing auto decline is a must. No child should be tried as an adult, I feel like diversions and juvenile life is plenty for a juvenile. No matter the crime or age (almost 18 or not) 16, 17, or 18 years old should not be tried as adults – because they are not adults. The world steals innocence from so many children, do you ever think about what made a child a hardened gangster? That no choice was given to him in the environment he grew up in? That maybe what these children do are mimics and mocks of the actions of their elders or guardians? Mostly these actions are done for respect or money because these children have to survive. On the opposing side, the Judges who are judging these children and the prosecutors who are prosecuting them more than likely grew up with both their parents all their life, going to nothing but the best of schools. The same prosecutors and judges are now sending these kids away who never even had the slightest chance to be in a position where they can prosper. Instead, they decide to show no sympathy to kids who were discredited, made fun of, and beat for doing bad things. These children are scarred. As scarred as I am I. I just happened to never wind up in jail (thank God). At the minimum, jail should be a normal society within itself; a city, for kids separate from adult offenders, and then people of all ages and races who get sentenced could make a real life correction and have an actual chance for rehabilitation. Nobody should be stripped of their right to go outside. We are all human.
*Ryan Eastwing is an alias to protect the identity of the individual referenced in this story.
- Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3399589
- Children in Prison https://eji.org/children-prison