Most Los Angeles residents are well aware that the number of men who die as a result of gunshot wounds and gang-related shootings in our neighborhoods each week are disproportionately young African Americans. Not so surprisingly, in our criminal defense practice we see a disproportionate number of black juveniles facing gun possession charges. Why is it that these teens, many of whom are not gang members or violent individuals, feel it necessary to carry guns? Whether it is the result of their neighborhoods, peer pressure, a perceived need for self-protection, a desire to be “cool,” or just their naivety about the seriousness of being caught with a firearm, awareness of the consequences they may face if caught with a gun may help lower the number of black juveniles who are inclined to do so.
The consequences juveniles face for gun possession are often harsh and have long-term, life changing, effects. Being convicted of a felony will affect their right to attend college and to vote. Serving jail time disrupts their schooling and personal lives, and usually grooms them to become better criminals, leading to higher rates of recidivism. For juveniles who have family, friends, and community members willing to help us advocate for lesser sentences, they may be lucky enough to be charged with misdemeanors and sent to camps or alternative programs (such as the Salvation Army) that accept troubled youth and help guide them into a career path. Our young clients who don’t have the benefit of a strong social support system, will almost always face much harsher sentences.
As criminal defense attorneys representing these youth, we take a holistic approach to working up a defense. A big piece of this includes taking the time to investigate their background and determine what resources and relationships they have that could assist them in receiving an alternative (and more productive) punishment. Family, friends, and community members willing to advocate for these youth and provide a stable environment in which they can complete probation, are often a critically important component of the defense: when the Court actually sees that a teen defendant has a strong family and support system that is willing to make sure that the teen completes the alternative sentence, we find almost universally that it is more inclined to agree to a lesser punishment and not send the kid to jail.
We observe amazing transformation among young clients who participate in alternative programs instead of serving jail sentences. These results make us all the more certain that most juveniles deserve a chance to prove that they can make better decisions when placed in a disciplined, nurturing environment, away from the peers and environment that encouraged their deviant behavior. Sometimes it takes being charged with a crime for them to see that they need to make big changes in the way they live their lives, and placement in an alternative program (and not in jail) often lights the way.