Robert Barton is a D.C. resident currently serving a sentence in a federal prison in Florida.

I grew up on some of the meanest streets of D.C., the child of a man who rotated through prison and abandoned me and my mother. The few visits I had with him taught me the wrong kind of lessons. When my mother sent me to him for a “man-to-man talk” after a shoplifting incident at age 10, he drove me to the strip where he hustled drugs, parading me around like his mascot. For the rest of that day, he sold crack out of his car while I watched.

My mother was all a son could ask for, but I needed a male role model, a mentor. I found one, although too late to prevent me from being drawn into a life that eventually landed me in prison. I first met him when I was 14. I had been charged with assault, and he was my court-appointed attorney. It was in the mid-1990s, and the system viewed me as just another juvenile delinquent, a menace to society, a “super-predator.”

My mentor, however, recognized in me an intelligent youth who had loads of potential, if I could resist the pull of peer pressure and the lure of the streets. We discovered common bonds: We had attended the same District high school, and we both loved basketball. Unfortunately, I was still immature and continued to get into trouble. And each time I did, he scolded me, pointing out how I was throwing my life away.

I was in the car on the spring night in 1995 when my soon-to-be co-defendant shot and killed a member of a rival group of teens. I was just two days past my 16th birthday. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I shouldn’t have been there. I will never forget the disappointment on my mentor’s face when he told me I’d really messed up this time.

I received the same first-degree murder verdict as the shooter and was sentenced to 30 years to life. I spent five years in D.C.’s adult prison in Lorton, Va., until the District closed it and contracted with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to house its criminal offenders. I have spent 18 years in a series of maximum-security federal prisons that in many ways are extensions of the brutal neighborhood in which I grew up. Prisoners divide into the equivalent of gangs, and the guards encourage it because division makes us easier to “handle.” It should be no surprise, however, when that internal conflict erupts into fights that can be deadly.

Still, the seeds my mentor had planted took root. Not much in the way of programming is offered in federal prisons to “lifers,” but I took seriously what was available. I got my GED; then, on my own, I earned an associate’s degree in business development online. When I was able to spend a year in the D.C. jail to prepare for a court proceeding, I entered its Georgetown Prison Scholars Program. I also was selected as a mentor for a District program for young adults just entering the system. Today, despite the fact that I am back in the much more restrictive federal system, I partnered with an associate on the outside to launch an initiative called More Than Our Crimes to advocate for second chances for teens and young adults facing long prison sentences.

Meanwhile, the lawyer who had been my mentor remained committed to helping kids like me avoid the devastation that is prison. For the past six years, that mentor, Karl Racine, has served as the first independently elected attorney general of the District of Columbia. I reconnected with him in the fall and we organized a teach-in on the reforms needed to improve justice for D.C. residents. Many of the ideas we pushed are reflected in the recommendations just released by the District Task Force on Jails and Justice, on which Karl served. Among them are two recommendations that would have changed my life: Raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21 and transfer responsibility for the prosecution of youths to the attorney general’s office, thus making them eligible for diversion programs.

I urge the D.C. government to take these recommendations seriously. Imagine if the system had treated me as a young man to be redirected, instead of turning me over to the maximum-security federal institutions that became my surrogate “parent.” How might I now be using the lessons Karl Racine taught me so many years ago? In prison and after I am eventually, I hope, released, I will continue to use my story to help youths at risk of following my path see their true potential, and to help the public at large see in people like me what Karl recognized so long ago: individuals who should not be defined by our worst mistakes.

We are so much more than our crimes. And the best way to make it possible for such youths to change their trajectory is to keep them out of an adult system that too often corrupts rather than rehabilitates.

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