Dead before 18: That was the life expectancy for my friends and me. We grew up in the 1980s in Southeast D.C. Murder, overdosing or long-term incarceration were our only way out. I took the latter. At age 16, I was convicted of attempted murder, armed robbery and distribution of heroin. I was tried as an adult and spent the next 11 years behind bars.
For those 11 years, I was a statistic — one of the millions of young men from inner cities whose lives all but end before they truly begin. But my story ended differently than most.
While in prison, I realized that instead of focusing my efforts on crime, I could focus them on becoming a productive member of society. After all, dealing drugs taught me all about profit and loss, negotiating deals and the like. When I got out of prison, I started my own entertainment business and today help aspiring artists reach their full potential.
But the question shouldn’t be about how I turned my life around — it should be how we help millions of people like me avoid going down dark roads to begin with. What I’ve found is it starts with the culture our kids grow up in and continues with the public policies facing those who do make bad decisions somewhere along the way.
Start with the culture. No one is born a criminal; crime is a learned trade. My view of the world was shaped by my life at home. My parents were addicts, one of alcohol, the other of heroin. No wonder, then, that by 11, I had turned to drug dealing as a way to try and escape my situation. By the time I was 16, at least a third of my friends were either addicts, facing felony charges or dead, often murdered by someone we knew.
How can anyone be expected to persevere through those circumstances? Education wasn’t an option when our families could not afford school lunches. And going to college was a joke.
What I needed — and what many kids need today — was a role model. We need strong community programs that can identify at-risk youth and intervene in their lives. I do that today by mentoring young people in Southeast. No lectures. No statistics. Just positive adult interactions that can help troubled youths find their way through life.
But what about those, like me, who do make bad decisions and cross paths with the law? Unfortunately, criminal justice policies make it difficult to have a second chance.
When it comes to federal criminal laws, especially those with so-called “mandatory minimums,” many sentence even non-violent drug criminals to years, even decades, in prison, regardless of the facts of each unique case. These sentences have often been based on the assumption that the best way to solve the War on Drugs is to lock people up, when in fact, people with addictions need healing. They need rehab programs that help them deal with their addiction — and often life-long wounds they inherited from devastating family circumstances.
Not only is a holistic approach better for the offender, but it is also more beneficial for society. The Justice Policy Institute studied various states that adopted drug treatment programs and found that increased admissions to effective programs resulted in reduced incarceration rates. As of 2008, of the 20 states that had adopted such programs, 19 had incarceration rates below the national average. This saves money for taxpayers, and it keeps communities safe as rehab programs have proven to reduce the rate of reoffenses, too.
As for state and local laws, some places in the country ban individuals with a record from ever casting a ballot or attending certain public events. I’ve been out of prison for 14 years and have a 10-year-old son, yet I can’t go on a school field trip with him.
There are other barriers that make it nearly impossible for those with an imperfect past to succeed. Roughly 650,000 individuals re-enter our communities each year, yet studies show that those who are forced to “check the box” for any criminal record reduce their chance of getting a call back by 50 percent. We’re locked out before we even get our foot in the door.
Fortunately in recent years, companies such as Home Depot, Target and Koch Industries have “banned the box,” delaying asking about an individual’s past record until they have looked at their other qualifications.
I am living proof that my worst mistake doesn’t define me. But to turn my exception into a new norm, we must change the culture in which our kids grow up, and change public policies for those like me who want to restart their lives. Hope — and redemption — can be possible for all.
Lamont Carey is the president of LaCarey Enterprises and the author of “Dead Before 18,” which empowers juveniles to avoid the pitfalls of bad decisionmaking that leads to incarceration or death.