What if the stupidest things you did at age 14 came up now during a job interview?
If the application form included a box asking if you’d ever driven drunk in your parents’ car? Plagiarized an essay on Huck Finn? Set fire to bags of dung and left them on doorsteps?
That’s sort of the situation facing Starcia Ague when she graduates from Washington State University, only her stupid things were a lot more serious: three felonies associated with a break-in robbery she participated in back in 2003.
It was a bad call, for sure, and she was locked up for the rest of her childhood. But to make that the end of her story would be a mistake.
Fortunately, there are two reasons for optimism on her behalf. One is a new law that would allow a judge to seal felony records for certain juvenile offenders who straighten up and fly straight – allowing them a pathway to jobs, an education, housing and other essentials for turning their lives around.
The other is the simple fact that Ague doesn’t really need a law to help her succeed. She’ll succeed anyway. If the Legislature passed a law banning success by Ague, she’d succeed. She’s a bulldozer. But not everyone is. You shouldn’t have to be a force of nature to earn a simple second chance.
Jailed at age 15, Ague finished high school and started college online – paying for one class at a time with the pennies from her commissary jobs and fighting to get the rules changed so she could do it. After her release, she enrolled in a bricks-and-mortar college. She won the governor’s Spirit of Youth award last year, an annual honor given to a young person who’s overcome long odds. She has interned with the public defenders office and worked on university research projects on juvenile justice.
Ague, now 22, is one of those people that law-and-order types fantasize about when they go dreamy about bootstraps and personal responsibility, except for one thing: In addition to her own perseverance, she received – and needed – a lot of help along the way.
“I’m here to tell you a child at 15 can make positive changes, become a productive member of society and not be the same person at 18 or 21,” she told a Senate committee in January. “Even being locked up for six years does not set their path.”
Here’s the thing: The new law won’t help Ague any time soon, and definitely not in time for her graduation in August. She wouldn’t qualify for the record-sealing until 2014. In the meantime, she’s asking the governor for a pardon and working toward the possibility of landing a job with a youth agency in Seattle that works with the University of Washington – something that would likely be impossible, if you were talking about anybody else.
She says she didn’t pursue the new law just for herself. She was thinking about other girls she knew in juvenile jail, girls who are now young women, trying to change their lives and still facing that box on the application form.
“Now it’s years down the road and they still have to check yes,” Ague said. “More than just for me, I’m so excited for all the other juveniles it will affect.”
The law will allow a judge to seal a juvenile Class A felony record, once the offender has been in the community for five years without committing a crime. Sex offenses wouldn’t qualify, and most murders wouldn’t either, since almost all are tried in adult court. Unrepentant repeat offenders need not apply.
It’s the same process already in place for lesser juvenile offenses.
Under the old law, “people with one juvenile indiscretion … are basically subjected to a life sentence, what they describe as worse than the detention itself,” said Casey Trupin, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services. “There’s no evidence it makes anybody any safer, and plenty of evidence it creates more problems for our society.”
The law sanctions what will be, for people like Ague, a useful dishonesty. They can legally check no in that box. Is this problematic, this lie? Some people would doubtlessly think so. But the criminal justice system allows this response when a record is sealed or expunged, or a conviction is vacated. If it’s the legal path for other offenders, it’s a fair route for these kids, too.
It’s worth emphasizing the difference between the teenage and adult criminal. There’s been a glut of recent research showing that the teenage brain is just different. Not done yet. Researchers estimate that the brain doesn’t fully develop, in terms of cognitive processes like reason, planning and judgment, until sometime in the 20s.
The American Bar Association concluded in 2004 that adolescents are “less morally culpable” for their actions than competent adults and more capable of change and rehabilitation.
It doesn’t mean that violent kids should get a pass, or that repeat offenders shouldn’t be kept in the public eye. What it means is we should all bid a happy good riddance to the state’s one-strike-and-you’re-out policy on kids like Ague.