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Peter Marlton: The Power of Love

I’ve been a public defender in Seattle for twenty-two years, tried many adult and juvenile cases, and negotiated plea agreements more times that I can count. There’s no question the criminal justice system in the U.S. is broken, particularly when it comes to disturbing disparities in charges and sentencing, with Blacks and Latinos routinely receiving much longer sentences than white offenders. But in an important respect, over the last seventeen years the criminal justice system has made a few leaps forward with respect to sentencing juveniles. In 2005 the Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons decided that executing juveniles amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eight Amendment to the Constitution. In 2010 they decided in Graham v. Florida that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicidal crime violates the Eighth Amendment. Finally, in Miller v. Alabama in 2012, they decided that mandatory sentences of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional. (It is worth noting that most, if not all, European countries eliminated sentences like these decades ago.)

All three of these Supreme Court cases are based on thirty-plus years of extensive research in brain development, which, to oversimplify for the purposes of this blog, find that the brain doesn’t fully mature until age twenty-five. Kids’ decisions can be impulsive, irrational, and self-destructive, among other things. This appears to be especially true of kids who grow up in abusive environments. Culpability is reduced.

Another promising advance is in the oversight of juvenile detention facilities, at least in California. While they are ostensibly obliged to focus on rehabilitation, for decades these facilities were not much more than warehouses. Prison environments had everything to do with punishment and nothing to do with rehabilitation. In the 1970s it appears there was virtually no oversight at all.

My novel, Eternal Graffiti, is part truncated autobiography. Seventeen-year-old Owen Kilroy is arrested and sent to a juvenile prison in California. It is not as bad as many others, but it’s bad enough. These chapters are based on my arrest for possession of LSD in San Francisco when I was fifteen and for being incorrigible. After spending time in juvenile hall, I was sent away to a place in Northern California much like the one in the book. It wasn’t officially a prison, but it might as well have been. The probation department’s and the judge’s reasoning behind the choice to send me there was to get me away from the San Francisco drug scene—they believed drugs were responsible for me failing eighth and ninth grade and being out of control. (There was some truth to that.) But from the first day I arrived at the facility until the last, all I did was get high. I had easier access to drugs than I ever had on the street. Five months later I escaped. In early drafts of the novel, I wrote quite a bit more about my experiences there (in one draft 76 pages) but reduced it to what I consider to be the essence of the experience.

After my escape I ended up back in juvenile hall. I spent the next two years in a boys home in L.A., run by an extraordinary man, a Black former preacher – I’ll call him Bob -- who spent every day doing everything he could to help turn our lives around, whether you’d stolen cars, robbed people, burglarized houses, or even committed murder. He took an interest in us and in me and his help and advice made all the difference. He was the father I never had. But for him, I probably wouldn’t be writing this.

As a public defender I have represented hundreds of kids in trouble. I see myself in many of them, kids who can have successful, crime-free futures if they are shown the love and care they deserve and are taught basic living skills. It was Bob who did this for me. For Owen it is through the love of his soulmate, Kiera, a young woman with an entirely different history, that he finds a new, better life.

The power of love ought not be underestimated even, or perhaps especially, for kids who’ve gotten themselves in deep trouble. While this doesn’t always succeed and isn’t the message of the novel, it may come through as something to think about.


About the Author...

Peter Marlton is the pseudonym for Pete MacDonald, who has discovered that writing fiction under another name can be psychologically and artistically liberating—it somehow skirts, without wholly avoiding, the imposter syndrome. Stories and essays published as Pete MacDonald have appeared in The New York Times, The Battered Suitcase (a novella), Inkwell Journal, Barrellhouse Magazine, and others. His original screenplay was a finalist in the Austin Screenwriting Competition.



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