I am a lawyer in the criminal justice system. I see people every day who, once the system is done with them, will be unable to get jobs or housing, and will be viewed by society as untrustworthy and dangerous. All the while, I know that I’ve done the same or worse things than what most of them are being convicted of.
I was a straight-A student in high school and college, in a white suburb. My friends and I didn’t commit crimes, we were “mischievous.” (This is sarcasm.) We were smart, we were bored, and we spent many nights seeing what we could get away with.
We shoplifted, often from stores that we worked at, and gave each other improper employee discounts. We trespassed in construction sites, into classmates’ houses and other private property, in closed city parks, and into our schools when they were closed. Sometimes we would short out lighting systems so we would not be seen.
I had one incident my senior year in high school (after I turned 18) where I was having a really terrible day, and a kid a few years younger than me was poking fun at me. When he wouldn’t quit, I snapped and started choking him. Really choking him. It scared him, and honestly, it scared me too. When the school asked me about it, of course I denied it. Unable to prove anything either way, the school just kept us separate and it went away. Knowing that I hurt another person makes me ashamed every time I remember this, but I’m fortunate that this internal shame is my worst consequence.
My other big one was during college. I briefly worked at a convenience store that sold scratch-off lottery tickets. Supervision was really poor, and I and a few co-workers would routinely take scratch-off tickets without paying for them. Today, it is a funny story of this dumb thing I did in college. But it very easily could have been a felony and some jail time, if not prison.
If I had been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for every illegal thing I’ve done, I definitely would have served time in prison. I would have been seen as a career criminal, escalating from trespassing, to vandalism and destruction of government property, to petty theft and burglary, to assault, and finally to felony grand theft from the state lottery. Depending on how certain things were charged, in some states I could have faced a life sentence under a three strikes law.
Instead, I eventually grew up. I have been able to establish two successful and incredibly lucrative careers, in software and in law. I take pride in being a conscientious and honest person. I am fortunate that my adventures remained amusing stories that I can tell to friends if I choose to, rather than a public scarlet letter.
Needless to say, I am not a prosecutor.