Henry reached into the back seat of his car to retrieve the pizzas. He grabbed them, turned around, and staring at him was the barrel of a gun. "Give me the pizza and money," said the masked man. Instinctively Henry said, "Please don't shoot."
Another person -- also masked -- grabbed the pizzas from Henry's hands.
"Now give me the money," said the man. Henry reached for his money bag containing all his tips for the evening. It was a Friday night, busy, and late enough to have collected a lot of tips.
"I'll give you the money, just don't shoot me," Henry begged. He handed him the bag of money.
"Give me the car keys," the masked man holding the gun demanded.
Henry hesitated. "Please man, not my car. It’s my living."
Both assailants were yelling as the one was pointing the gun to Henry's head. Henry reached in his pocket and handed over the keys. The robbers jumped in the car and took off.
Henry reached for his cell phone, dialed 911 and gave the dispatcher the description of the car and tag number.
The police arrived and Henry described what happened. While talking to the police, the officer stopped Henry and took a call. They had the two suspects. They are juveniles-- both are 16 years old.
Henry had only one thing on his mind -- the car. Like a child asking the doctor if the needle will hurt, Henry asked, "What about my car? Do they have my car?"
The officer looked up at Henry and hesitated, "I am sorry, sir. There was a chase. The car is totaled."
Henry's shoulders slumped. He looked down shaking his head back, filled with disappointment. "What am I going to do now?" Henry asked as the anger began to seep in.
Georgia has an automatic transfer law that sends juveniles ages 13-16 to adult court if arrested for any one of seven crimes. We call them the "Seven Deadly Sins." These boys were arrested for armed robbery with a firearm. It is a deadly sin. They by-passed juvenile court and went straight to superior court.
The transfer law does provide for a juvenile to be transferred to juvenile court from superior court at the discretion of the district attorney before indictment. Fortunately for these boys, they are in a county with an elected district attorney who was a former juvenile judge -- Tracy Lawson -- who is well versed in adolescent brain development.
Neither boy had a record. One boy had average grades, while the other had above average grades. One had a minimal school discipline record, the other none. Both boys had a good family support system. They were not associated with a gang.
It just didn't make sense why they did it--it was stupid!
So Tracy transferred them to juvenile court.
One important point --Tracy expected these types of transfers to result in restrictive custody at a secure facility. After all, in adult court they were facing a minimum of 10 years in an adult prison. The most I can give is five years in a treatment-friendly, secure facility for youth.
Not a bad deal-huh?
Except for one thing-- I have never in my 13 years on the bench faced two boys like these. In every case there is always something I can point to that explains the conduct -- gang banging, family problems, school failure, mental health and personality disorders, or drugs -- especially a serious violent crime like this one.
The boys came to court. They were detained. They were represented by counsel and entered a plea of admission. I granted bail, but they could not post the amount. They returned for their disposition hearing.
As usual, the victim was present. We have a great victim assistance coordinator in Kevin. He knows I like to see the victims in court to testify about their experience. I want the youth to hear the pains of the victim -- how their behavior has traumatized the victim. Empathy is a rehabilitative tool. Remorse is not just saying "I am sorry" – it’s feeling their pain. A pain that makes one think twice before doing it again!
The court officer prepared a social history -- the kids' background -- and the recommendation of probation shocked everyone. The prosecutor vehemently objected stressing the violent nature of the crime, the use of a gun, and the taking of a car and destroying it. He was right. The acts alone are enough to send these kids to detention for more than a year.
It was time to hear from the victim. I welcomed Henry to my court and thanked him for his time and the courage to talk about that night -- about his pain. As Henry began to speak, the second shock wave reverberated across the courtroom.
"Please don't send them to prison your Honor."
"You gotta be kidding," I thought to myself.
"Go on sir," coaching Henry to continue. I wanted to hear this one.
"When I heard that night these boys wrecked my car after threatening to shoot me, I wanted them sent away forever," Henry started to explain. "But as time went by and I got to know about these boys--how they've never been in trouble before, do good in school, and have a good family -- it just didn't make sense to send them to prison."
"I am listening. Anything else?" I asked.
"Yes your Honor -- Have you ever done something stupid and regretted it?"
"Well yes sir. I have, but nothing like this," I answered.
"I know you haven't Judge, but still, you regretted it and wished you had it to do all over again, right?"
And again I answered, "Yes sir."
"Well, so do these boys Judge. They did a stupid thing. They committed an armed robbery with a gun--but robbery ain't in their heart Judge. That's not who they really are." Henry paused. He was on his feet.
"Don't send them to a place that will put it in their heart. Please Judge, give them a second chance."
Henry sat down. I thanked him.
And with those words, ". . . a second chance," a new program is born.
This story continues on Thursday.
Beginning in January, students who borrow to pay for college will keep more of their paycheck when it comes time to pay the loans back. Last Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced a plan that would cap monthly payments on federal student loans to 10 percent of the borrower’s discretionary income.
The change comes after a petition on the White House website asking for student loan forgiveness received 32,000 signatures. Although the focus of the plan is not on debt relief, the new proposal would forgive student loan debt after 20 years of payments.
The program is a modification of an earlier proposal approved by Congress that would have taken effect in 2014 and capped monthly payments at 15 percent of a student’s income. That proposal would have forgiven debt after 25 years. Obama accelerated the effective date of the program through executive order.
With unemployment rates still high across the country, students welcome the news.
“I’m definitely worried about paying back my loans,” said Zach Logan, 19, a freshman at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Logan said he borrowed $500 to help pay for his first semester of college and plans to borrow similar amounts in the future.
“I like the plan,” Logan said. “It sounds like it takes the pressure and stress off students.”
Senior English major Megan Roberts, also of KSU, has so far avoided taking out student loans thanks to the HOPE Scholarship program in Georgia, which pays tuition at state schools for Georgia students with at least a 3.0 GPA. But Roberts’ scholarship will run out before she graduates, she said. Now she is contemplating taking out loans for her last semester and for graduate school.
“It’s a major concern,” she said. Taking out loans is “a reality” for a lot of students but “it’s a little scary.”
According to Rich Williams, Higher Education Advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) and the Student PIRG’s Higher Education Project, two-thirds of students graduate with college loan debt.
“We are delighted the president is using his executive authority to provide relief to students,” he said. “It’s a small step in the right direction but a larger change is needed to come from Congress.”
Williams said the different types of loans available confuse many students. The new program will help students to track loans and allows borrowers to consolidate loans for lower monthly payments and discounted interest rates. The program is “a little public education and a little debt relief,” he said.
“The president is creating a special opportunity for students,” he said.
Not everyone is happy with the plan, however, including Republican presidential hopefuls.
“I believe it is abuse of power from the executive to impose via an executive order a wholesale change in the student loan,” Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican presidential candidate, said at The Future of American Education: A Presidential Primary Candidate Forum sponsored by the College Board and News Corp.
According to Gingrich, speaking at the same education forum, the president will bankrupt “the entire country by promising to every young person you will not have to pay your student loan as a student. However you will later have to pay off the national debt as a taxpayer."
Photos by Ryan Schill / JJIE.org