THINK OF ALL the stupid - and criminal - things you did as a teen: Drinking in the woods with your friends. Smoking marijuana. Fistfighting. Or worse, stealing.
Was it wrong? Yes. Did you get caught? If you grew up in white suburbia, probably not. But think about what could have happened if you grew up poor in a black or Latino neighborhood, where the "War on Drugs" felt like a war on you; where police officers routinely targeted you, just because you looked like you might be up to no good. And what if you were up to no good? Should the cops, prosecutors and judges write you off as a lost cause, lock you away and set you on a course of failure?
These questions were at the heart of a dialogue yesterday about racial inequality in the criminal-justice system among teens in the city's juvenile jail and Michelle Alexander, civil-rights activist and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The teens, some with her book on their laps, gave Alexander a hero's welcome, applauding as she walked into the gymnasium at the Juvenile Justice Services Center in West Philadelphia.
"I experimented with drugs. I stole. I had friends who got into fights," Alexander said. "What distinguished me from others is: I didn't get caught . . . Many of the young folks who are here today made a lot of the same mistakes I made."
The teens, who seemed riveted by Alexander, wore prison-issued dark-blue uniforms, sneakers without shoelaces and white plastic bands around their wrists.
While working as a civil-rights lawyer, Alexander said, she "awakened to the reality that our criminal-justice system is more of a system of racial and social control than a system of crime control." She described a "vast new racial under-caste" in a nation that has spent about $1 trillion on a failed drug war and $69 billion on prisons. And yet, schools are grossly underfunded. Studies show that minorities are no more likely to use and sell drugs than whites, but they are "vastly more likely to be caught," she added.
The Juvenile Justice Services Center is supposed to be a temporary stop for teens, ages 13 to 18, awaiting trial or facility placement. Ideally, the maximum stay is 10 days. But the juvenile-court system is so backlogged that teens often stay longer, even though many were arrested for nonviolent offenses and pose no threat to the community, said Timene Farlow, deputy commissioner of juvenile-justice services for the city Department of Human Services.
Yesterday, Matthew Barber, 18, of North Philly, was one of 135 juveniles - an unusually high number - housed at the center, according to Farlow. Barber has been there for a month. His journey through the criminal courts began last year when he was 17 and living on the streets. It was about 1 a.m. when he'd spotted cash inside an unlocked parked car. As he opened the door to steal the money, police arrived. He ran, but the cops caught up to him. A black officer in uniform stepped out of his squad car and drew his gun, Barber said.
"He pulled a gun out on me and said, 'If you run, I'm going to shoot you,' " Barber said. "I just got on my . . . knees and had my arms up."
A judge placed Barber in a juvenile facility in Harrisburg but he fled from there and returned to Philly. Barber said that he "was on the run, sleeping anywhere, everywhere," for about a year, although by then, he had enrolled himself in One Bright Ray Community High School as a sophomore. He was walking with a group of friends on a March afternoon when an officer stopped the teens and took down their names. The officer arrested Barber on a bench warrant. His case is slated to go before a judge today; he hopes to get out and eventually get his high-school diploma, he said.
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, being locked up, away from your loved ones and your family," Barber said. "At nighttime, you have to go in your cell from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. and you got all that time to sit in there and think and look back on things."
On Wednesday night, Barber wrote a rap song in honor of Alexander's visit. He gleaned a lot from her book. "This book is real," he said, thumbing through its pages. "It sort of made me feel connected."
On Twitter: @wendyruderman