The Crimes of Children
The juvenile justice system was designed to “hide youthful errors from the full gaze of the public.” But the extra penalties attached to these sentences have ruined many lives.
Round Rock High School, just north of Austin in the Texas Hill Country, sprawls over 88 acres. It feels like a small liberal-arts college: There is a junior R.O.T.C. Training center. There are basketball courts, a gymnastics facility, a swimming pool, a football field, soccer fields, and a baseball diamond that, along its outfield fence, bears a faded sign commemorating the school’s 1997 state championship victory.
In January 2007, the principal called 17-year-old Jean Karlo Ponzanelli out of first-period history class and down to the office to join a waiting detective who took him to the local station for questioning. A girl he knew had run away from home and the police were curious about her whereabouts. They also suspected domestic abuse. (The girl declined a request for an interview, so her name has been withheld to protect her privacy.)
Ponzanelli had known this girl since the last day of 2005, when he attended a New Year’s Party at her home. “We go to the same high school,” he remembers her telling him in the kitchen.
“You’re in high school?” Ponzanelli asked.
Another partygoer asked her how old she was. “I’m 15,” she said.
After that, Ponzanelli and the girl drifted in the same suburban mix. He never ran into her in the hallways, but he’d often see her hanging out with his friends in the high-school parking lot at the end of the day. On occasion, she would call him and give a location and he would drive over. “Sometimes she had bruises on her face,” Ponzanelli said.
Ponzanelli said he couldn’t help the detective with her whereabouts that day. He hadn’t heard from the girl for some time. In the course of their meandering conversation, though, the Round Rock Police Department gathered another piece of information: Ponzanelli and the girl had had sex three times. On the first two occasions, the officer calculated, Ponzanelli had been 16 and she’d been 13. In Texas, sex with a minor younger than 14 is a first-degree felony.
A week later, when Ponzanelli walked out of the same first-period history class, he says waiting police officers cuffed him, bent him over the hood of their car, searched his backpack, loaded him into the back seat, and drove off to the county jail in Georgetown 10 miles north. The felony complaint, signed on January 19, 2007, states that the defendant “confessed to knowing the victim was 13 years old and still having sex with her anyway.”
Although the girl’s mother called for leniency, Ponzanelli was charged with aggravated sexual assault. When the state offered him the lesser charge of attempted sexual assault, he accepted the plea deal. But the crime was still a third-degree felony, and as a result, it came with mandatory jail time. He received six months in Williamson County Jail and 10 years of probation.
Ponzanelli started serving his time in an open room known as “the tank,” which contained four bunk beds, seven roommates, and a small patch of floor space. He was later removed to a single cell where he was confined all day save one hour in which he could exercise, shower, and make a phone call. He had no interaction with other inmates. He spent his 18th birthday, his high-school prom night, and his graduation day in that cell. He never received a diploma (though he later went on to earn his GED).
This was Ponzanelli’s first arrest. His second happened less than a year after his release on July 20, 2007, after he had rejoined the Round Rock community as a publicly registered sex offender. The label would apply for 10 years, though the clock would only start ticking after he finished probation. Registration restricted him from any form of contact with children younger than 17, including by phone or email. He could not live in a house with an Internet connection, nor, according to orders of community supervision, could he go within 1,000 feet of parks, schools, daycare centers, pools, playgrounds, “or other places where minor children younger than 17 congregate without specific approval of the Court.”
The apartment where Ponzanelli lived with his mother was near a daycare. The Court did not give specific approval for Ponzanelli to remain there. But he had nowhere else to go and no money of his own, so he stayed. He said the police would show up on his doorstep and question his mother while he hid in his room. “My mom was all scared,” Ponzanelli said. He knew that, in time, he would be caught and re-incarcerated for violating his probation. He made it through the closing of summer and all of autumn. He made it partway through winter, into the early months of 2008.
One evening in late February of 2008, Ponzanelli was skateboarding with a friend in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Before his incarceration, Ponzanelli had skated competitively and earned a sponsorship from a skate store in the neighboring town of Leander. He had received free gear from Vans and commuted to work by skateboard through the dystopian interchanges of suburban Texas.
“Don’t look now,” Ponzanelli’s friend told him as they warmed up. “There’s an undercover cop car across the street.”
Ponzanelli didn’t look, but a few minutes later a voice commanded him to get off his skateboard and turn around. Ponzanelli turned to see two policemen advancing with guns drawn. “I picked up my board and just kind of stood there,” he said. They arrested him for failing to comply with the sex-offender registration requirements.
Ponzanelli was sent to a state prison in Huntsville, Texas, where he spent his 19th, 20th, and 21st birthdays. During that time, his file surfaced before U.S. Immigrations Customs and Enforcement. To their surprise—and, Ponzanelli says, to his own—he had never been a citizen of the United States: His mother, a Mexican citizen, had brought him across the border when he was an infant. Deportation proceedings began.
Registration as a sex offender and deportation are both collateral consequences—statutory penalties that attach to charges after a sentence is served. There’s an identifiable logic to some of these consequences: Convicted of laundering money? Then you’re barred from the financial industry, at least temporarily. Caught molesting children? Then you can’t work in a daycare. Others, like deportation or felony disenfranchisement, are more purely punitive. (In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one out every five African Americans lacks the right to vote because of this penalty.) Some of these sanctions don’t seem to match the crime at all: Busted on drug possession? Your barbershop license can be revoked.
Judges have no discretion over collateral consequences, and lawyers rarely grasp their extent. A recent project by the American Bar Association, the first of its kind, compiled every consequence in every state and found more than 40,000 on the books.
The U.S. juvenile courts split off from adult courts to protect against precisely this kind of scarlet lettering. A band of social reformers at the turn of the 20th century believed the stigma of incarceration affects children differently than adults. These reformers argued for courts that shielded children’s identities from the public and walled their cases off from corrosive media coverage; they argued that kids occupy an unusual behavioral chrysalis and urged sentencing that allowed them to learn from their mistakes. The juvenile justice system, opined the Supreme Court of Arizona in 1942, ought to “hide youthful errors from the full gaze of the public and bury them in the graveyard of the forgotten past.”
Decades of research on the peculiarities of adolescence reinforce this approach. Teenagers are rebellious, reckless, shortsighted, and tragically susceptible to peer pressure. They are impetuous and poor judges of many things that adults consider worthy of measured judgment. Eighty to 90 percent of teenage boys acknowledge, in anonymous surveys, having committed a delinquent act serious enough to result in incarceration. In short, kids, like the mentally ill, strain the norms of legal culpability.
Slowly and unevenly, the Supreme Court is shaping this science into precedent. In 2005, the Court forbade capital punishment for those under 18. It prohibited life without parole for juvenile non-homicides in 2010, and, in 2012, deemed it unconstitutional for anyone under 18 to serve a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
But while the judicial treatment of youth has gained nuance, a few particularly severe collateral consequences persist, undermining the historical ideal that what happens in juvenile court stays in juvenile court. The Adam Walsh Act of 2006, for instance, demands that state sex-offender registries include juveniles who are at least 14-years-old when they commit certain crimes. (Juvenile sex offenses, which account for about a quarter of all sex offenses in the United States, can range from teen sexting to the violent molestation of a young child.)
The inclusion of juveniles on registries was largely instigated by the congressional testimony of Amie Zyla, who was molested at the age of 8 by a 14-year-old family friend. The friend was sent to juvenile detention, released, and a decade later rearrested for the sexual assault of multiple children. “The simple truth is that juvenile sex offenders turn into adult predators,” Zyla testified.
Twenty-seven states currently publicize their juvenile registries. Texas, which has almost 70,000 registered sex offenders, is one of these, and stands out as particularly severe in its treatment of youth. Children as young as 10 can be placed on its registry. The state also imposes what’s known as “Condition X” on many offenders. This makes supervision requirements tighter, disallowing volunteer work without the permission of a parole officer, for instance, or requiring submitting to a search—of a person, motor vehicle, or house—at any time without a warrant.
Other severe collateral consequences include eviction from public housing and deportation. When juvenile defendants live in government-subsidized apartments, their arrests or misbehavior can swallow entire families in eviction proceedings. This can happen even before a court declares innocence or guilt. And for a child raised, but not born, in the United States, a crime as light as shoplifting can result in deportation to a country in which he has no immediate family and no way to communicate.
Such punishments are “the gift that keeps on giving,” said Lisa Thurau, the executive director of the Boston-based policy and training organization Strategies for Youth. “If you really wanted to marginalize people, you couldn’t do a much better job than our system of juvenile collateral consequences.”
When Ponzanelli got out of jail the first time, he had to attend a therapy program in Georgetown. It was hosted by the Center for Cognitive Education, a limited-liability corporation that runs court-ordered programs in five Texas cities. “Sex offenders hurt people,” Ponzanelli’s treatment manual began. “Victims deserve to know that the offender accepts responsibility for his actions and is aware of the pain and suffering he caused.” The course revolved around questions that forced introspection, questions meant to help sex offenders grapple with their illness. “How often do you masturbate?” the manual asked. “How old were you when your sexual problems began?” “List at least three thinking errors that encouraged your sexually deviant behavior.”
Such programs are based on the work of Robert Longo, who began treating adolescent sex offenders during the 1980s. Longo has since declared that much of what he thought about juvenile offenders was wrong: According to The New York Times, he now says that forcing offenders to dwell on their sexual fantasies and behaviors may “reinforce their self-image as ‘sex offenders’ with bad, deviant traits rather than as kids needing lessons in setting boundaries and creating better relationships.”
Still, the approach Longo helped develop three decades ago remains standard. Ponzanelli says he attended his therapy sessions sporadically. “They treated me like I had a child problem,” he complained. His probation officer made clear that she was aware of his violations—the irregular attendance at therapy, his continued residence at home near a daycare.
In all, Ponzanelli’s registration placed him under 37 “conditions of community supervision.” “The probation requirements are virtually impossible to abide,” said Jason Szanyi, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. These restrictions can appear negligible in isolation—community service requirements, notification about change of address or employment—but following all of them together is complicated and time-intensive, Szanyi explains. It’s also expensive, as offenders must pay for all of their court-mandated therapy sessions and drug tests. Ponzanelli recalls laying out $200 or $300 every week while working part-time at Schlotzky’s fixing deli sandwiches. “These laws are setting kids up for failure,” said Szanyi.
The effectiveness of the public registry is also hotly debated. Justice Department statistics show that 93 percent of sexually abused children are victimized by family members or acquaintances. Public registration, which was designed to signal when predatory strangers have finished serving their sentences and are living nearby, doesn’t protect against these kinds of assaults. And as a class of crimes, sex offenses carry some of the lowest levels of recidivism. Many studies find rates between 4 and 10 percent. (The average recidivism rate across all crimes is 68 percent within three years.) Research by criminologist and Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring found that juveniles with five or more non-sex-related arrests on their record are twice as likely to be arrested for sex crimes in adulthood as juveniles who did commit sex offenses but had fewer than five total arrests for any crime. The takeaway: If the juvenile registry is designed to identify and quarantine future sex offenders, then the quantity of crimes committed may be a better predictor than the substance of those crimes.
“The current setup is derived from the notion that past is prologue,” said Thurau of Strategies for Youth. “But there has been no developmental analysis going into this assumption. In the case of juveniles, we are dealing with a particular stage.”
Responding to this lack of analysis, the National Research Council released a comprehensive 2013 report entitled Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach. The 400-page synthesis foregrounds an adolescent “imbalance among developing brain systems.” The pleasure-seeking chunks of gray matter develop first; the systems that support self-control come second.
“Of course we need to protect public safety,” said Edward Mulvey, the director of the law and psychiatry program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and a committee member on the NRC report. But, he notes, crimes committed by juveniles are weak signals of anything to come. Their brains are “highly plastic,” and harsh punishment stifles the rehabilitative ambitions upon which the juvenile justice system is built.
“What kids are paying with in terms of time—from the years 16 to 23—is not the same currency as between 27 and 34,” continued Mulvey. “We have to be very careful about spending kids’ developmental currency. We all have one shot at development and don’t want to impede that. We don’t want to put weights around children’s ankles and tell them to run 100 yards. We don’t want to stop them from being able to achieve what they’re only going to achieve at this one time in their lives.”
Three hours north of Round Rock is Weatherford, Texas, a town of wood-sided cafes and saloons. A Second Empire-style courthouse rises over the traffic circle in the middle of town, anchoring the community like an ornate monument to justice. In a nearby working-class neighborhood, in a small blue house with an empty lawn, a middle-aged man told me about what happened to his children.
The father has spent so many years trying to help his children withdraw from the public eye that he asked me not to use their names for this article. The trouble began in 1997, back when the father was a long-haul trucker. He spent weeks away from home delivering steel to Windsor, Canada, and returning to Texas with granite from the Appalachian quarries of Pennsylvania. Upon arriving home one winter day, his then-wife (they’ve since divorced) explained that something was wrong. She was worried that their older son had engaged in some type of sexual activity with their daughter.
Together, the couple took their older son, then 12, to a therapist, where those fears were confirmed. They also learned that their younger son, then 10, had been present, though most likely not directly involved. (Their father is convinced that a porn video shown to the brothers by a friend led to their experimentation.) Their boys were 10 and 12 at the time; their sister was 7. Under legal mandate, the therapist reported the case.
A few days after the therapist’s report, Child Protective Services interviewed the young girl without notifying either of her parents. (In keeping with C.P.S. procedure, the parents were notified within 48 hours that an interview had taken place.) C.P.S. declined to comment on the specifics of this case, but according to her father, the agents asked his daughter questions that were never disclosed to her parents. Based on her answers, her father says, several police cars were sent to the house to arrest his 10- and 12-year-old sons, who were placed in pretrial detention in the nearby town of Cleburne. They remained there for about one month awaiting a court date. C.P.S. wanted to take the girl into state custody, too, but she and her mother fled secretly to a friend’s house in the nearby town of Hudson Oaks. On the day of their hearing, the two preteen brothers were marched into court wearing prison-issue clothing, handcuffs, and ankle chains. “A 10-year-old,” said his father, “in an oversized orange jumpsuit, the sleeves bunched up, and fucking shackles.”
Texas C.P.S. is charged with protecting some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, and the agency gets involved in cases like the father’s for good reason. In May, the news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son in the reality show 19 and Counting, had sexually abused five underage girls—four of them his sisters—and faced no legal consequences. The public backlash against this story highlighted the need for intervention that goes beyond a parental reprimand or a stint of rehabilitative manual labor. But well-intentioned efforts to avoid an overly lax response can lead to the opposite: a string of collateral consequences that amounts to an overly severe punishment.
The state charged the 12-year-old son with aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to two years, most of which he spent in the Nelson’s Children Center of Denton, 60 miles northeast of Weatherford. Soon after his arrival there, his father says that he and his wife began receiving bills from a Denton-area pharmacy. In first grade, the boy had been diagnosed with ADD and a social-anxiety disorder, for which he was prescribed Ritalin. But the drugs listed on the receipts from Denton, according to his father, were antipsychotics unfamiliar to him and his wife. Though his father refused to pay the bills, he says the regimen continued. When he and his wife showed up on visits—once a week, if possible—their oldest son was often slumped in his chair, verging on unresponsive. “He might as well have been unconscious,” said his father. (The father told me he no longer had the receipts. The juvenile facility and the pharmacy have since shut down, and the boy’s records were closed to me, so I was unable to verify these details.)
The younger son, meanwhile, received a charge of indecency with a minor accompanied by two years of probation. C.P.S. allowed his sister to return home, but only on the condition that her brother not live there with her. He spent both years with nearby family friends, attending a state-accredited sex-offender therapy program from the ages of 10 to 12. “The drive out there was nice,” said his father. “We got to spend a bit of time with our son.” The therapy sessions were closed to both parents.
In 2000, the boys were finally allowed to return home. Their sister, then 9, said recently that she doesn't recall feeling any apprehension. “I remember being excited,” she said, adding that it’s hard for her to recall much about the crime itself. “I remember wanting them to come home.”
But the family soon learned that the boys, now 12 and 14, would be listed on the Texas Sex Offender Registry for the next 10 years. No restrictions applied, so they could spend time at schools, in parks, with other children. But their names were posted publicly, as were the street on which they lived and basic descriptions of each child. The younger son’s registration listed a Weiland Road residence, brown hair, brown eyes, a height of four feet, and a weight of 80 pounds. Shoe size: six.
The registry was relatively new at that time, so local newspapers savored the subject’s tawdry potential, publishing the names and addresses of every sex offender in the county. Friendship Baptist, where the boys had been baptized and attended church with their mother every Sunday, ostracized the family. The younger son’s elementary school and the older son’s middle school both expressed abiding fear for the safety of the other students, who taunted the boys as the nature of the crime, if not the details, became public knowledge. The older son dropped out of school within a few years; his younger brother followed soon after.
Effects from the registry rippled out. The family’s seven-month-old Border collie was shot and left to die in a dumpster, where the father discovered it under a pile of trash bags; he believes the act was intended as a threat to his boys. A neighbor pamphleted the community to let everybody know that sex offenders lived nearby. In October 2008, a local paper ran the headline “Where are the monsters on Halloween?” The article encouraged parents “concerned about where the real ghouls and goblins are” to review their local sex-offender registry. Cars sped past the father’s home with windows down, drivers and passengers yelling obscenities. The siding of the house is cratered from B.B. gun pellets. Once, somebody lobbed a Molotov cocktail into the father’s driveway where it shattered behind his truck and spilled a rivulet of blue flame down the sloping, tree-lined street. No one was ever caught.
When the younger son turned 18, both brothers, neither with a high-school diploma, asked the father to take them to the military recruiter. He says it “was perhaps the most hurtful thing” he ever did as a father: The recruiter explained that options exist for many criminal records, that felonies can often be overlooked. But registered sex offenders are barred from the military. The recruiter apologized and led them back outside.
About five years ago, the younger son overdosed on heroin in his bedroom. His brother, who was with him at the time, rushed out to tell his father, who pulled the younger son into the living room. The 9-1-1 operator asked if he was breathing. He wasn’t. “I was sure I’d lost him,” said his father. The paramedics arrived and dosed him with naloxone. His father followed the ambulance and stood behind the emergency-room curtains looking at his son, the monitors sounding dully, the IV tubes dripping fluids. When his son regained enough lucidity to register what had happened, he didn’t have much to say: “I really don’t give a shit anymore.”
Today, the young man has a girlfriend. She has a 7-year-old daughter and, together, they have two young children, but the state of Texas has told the younger son that he cannot reside with anyone under the age of 17. He does live with them, though, on the weeks he’s not working on an oil rig. His parole officer, like Ponzanelli’s, could seek him out, arrest him, and lock him up for living at home.
His older brother, meanwhile, has spent most of his adulthood living with his father. He has struggled to hold down a job. He rides out the minutes and hours of free time on his mountain bike. “It makes me think of that old movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” said the father. “This is the loneliness of the long distance biker. He’s 29 years old. He hasn’t got many friends. He just can’t adapt.”
Until recently, father and son lived in a 1,000-square-foot house with old carpet and two recliners in a tiny living room. Fake wood paneling covered the walls. They moved not long ago, down the street to a slightly roomier place. The father pointed to the back bedroom of the house, where the older son had holed up, refusing to talk about his past. “I’m his only support. I want to make sure my kids have what they need—that’s all I really want. They had no educational opportunity, they were not able to serve their society or serve their country. And they were denied these opportunities because of mistakes they made at 10 and 12 years old?”
In many ways, juvenile collateral consequences are a holdover from the 1990s, when a rise in poverty, broken homes, and drug-related violence was generating chilling national headlines. Professor John DiIulio of Princeton University, along with a few like-minded colleagues, predicted the rise of a new class of criminal, the juvenile super-predator. Noting the large numbers of children growing up with poverty and abuse, these academics inferred that hundreds of thousands of them would develop criminal tendencies. “They are just four, five, and six years old right now,” proclaimed a 1996 Time magazine article, “but already they are making criminologists nervous.” Politicians campaigned as though these young super-predators were already on the streets. Draconian legislation swept through Congress and statehouses, often based on the highest-profile and most egregious criminal cases.
President Bill Clinton responded to these fears in his 1996 State of the Union address. “I'm directing the FBI and other investigative agencies to target gangs that involve juveniles in violent crime, and to seek authority to prosecute as adults teenagers who maim and kill like adults,” he declared. He went on to introduce his “One Strike” policy for public housing: “Criminal gang members and drug dealers are destroying the lives of decent tenants. From now on, the rule for residents who commit crime and peddle drugs should be one strike and you're out.”
Two months later, he signed into law the Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act. The HOPE Act gave public-housing authorities not just discretion, but monetary incentives, to evict tenants who break the terms of their lease.
The result has been widespread eviction in public housing, often due to the actions of juveniles. A 2002 report on Chicago estimated that 25 percent of One Strike evictions originated with claims against juveniles. No finding of guilt is required; a police report suffices. “Chicago doesn’t do everything efficiently,” said Anne Geraghty-Helms, pro bono counsel at the multinational law firm DLA Piper. “But boy are they efficient when evicting kids from low-income housing.”
As with the public sex-offender registry, eviction forms no part of a formal, criminal punishment; judges do not impose it as a criminal sanction. Rather, it serves as a collateral consequence of interaction with the law. Parents in public housing whose children brush against the police rarely understand the implications. The appearance of a notice to vacate hanging on the front door generally comes as a surprise.
Unless property management is present when youth get in trouble, “it’s not entirely clear how they get the records,” said Dennericka Brooks, a senior attorney at Chicago’s Legal Assistance Foundation. “But they do.” Under the Juvenile Court Act, juvenile records are supposed to be confidential. Select institutions, like schools and the military, are given access to the records, but public-housing authorities are not among this group.
The catalyst for an eviction may be small—Brooks cited cases based on trespass by teenagers or an argument between mother and daughter—but the effects can create lifelong reverberations. Families lose their vouchers for publicly assisted housing and often disperse across the city or county; parents and children become separated, dependent on the largesse of friends with an open couch or a guest bed. And parents who try to settle with housing authorities outside of trial are generally told that the rest of the family can remain in the apartment only if the accused juvenile is kicked out.
The Supreme Court, upholding the law in the 2002 case HUD v. Rucker, argued that such stringency “maximizes deterrence” among public-housing tenants. The soundness of this logic has never been tested: Eviction outcomes are neither tracked nor measured. Shantae Goodloe, a public-affairs specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told me in an email, “HUD does not keep track of the annual number of public-housing evictions based on lease violations.”
A similar dearth of statistics confronts those interested in tracking juveniles on the public sex-offender registry. There is no organization or federal agency that tracks people registered for offenses they committed as children. As Edward Mulvey of the University of Pittsburgh put it: “The fact is, our juvenile justice system knows less about the kids in front of it than the local supermarket knows about the buying habits of those same kids.”
In most states, many juvenile offenses can be erased from the public record, typically five years after the crime or the end of the criminal proceedings. But there’s a catch: Many juvenile sentences involve rehabilitation programs or steep fines. Those who can pay the bills are able to get their records sealed. Those who can’t may spend their entire adulthoods stuck in a pattern of “needs-based delinquency” in the words of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Tamar Birckhead.
A 37-year-old woman from Washington State was recently informed that she couldn’t apply to the nursing program at Spokane Community College in Washington State. (Her name has been withheld so as not to further publicize her record.) When the admissions officer asked whether she had any felonies on her record, she mentioned a juvenile conviction. At the age of 17, the woman and four accomplices had robbed and vandalized a cluster of 10 churches. She’d served a few weeks in juvenile detention and the court ordered her to pay a total of $21,870.52 in restitution. As a 17-year-old working at McDonald’s with no family support, she’d had difficulty making payments.
Twenty years later, she has two daughters. She has lived and worked on the military bases where her husband gets stationed, and she earned her certificate as a physicians’ office assistant. But as long as her juvenile record is accessible to employers, she can only land jobs that earn her about $1,500 per month. Her record precludes her from working with children, the disabled, or the elderly. “Any helping profession, which is what I enjoy, I can’t do,” she said. In order to seal her record, she would have to settle her restitution, and the last time she asked, roughly 10 years ago, she still owed more than $50,000. At an interest rate of 12 percent, the total today is likely over $150,000. She no longer checks because phone calls reanimate the collectors.
“It’s a debtor’s prison,” said Casey Trupin, an attorney with the Children and Youth Project at Columbia Legal Services in downtown Seattle. “We need to pull back from this precipice where we’re giving life sentences to juveniles,” Trupin said. “We need to make it easier to seal records.”
“Records don’t ever really disappear,” says Riya Shah, an attorney with Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center. As a result, crimes don’t ever really disappear.
Daniel Bryner still isn’t sure how prospective employers found out about the series of crimes he committed between the ages of 12 and 14—ranging from driving without a license to residential burglary. “I figured that when I had the record sealed, that would be the end of my troubles.” He laughed. “But once it’s out there, it’s out there.” Fast-food restaurants and box stores continue to decline interviews. Recently, when Bryner’s stepfather suddenly abandoned his mother, a stroke victim who requires support, Bryner was forbidden from stepping in as her legal guardian. The Administrative Office of the Courts, which could have found his record in any number of corners—an outdated FBI background check, for instance—pointed to Bryner’s juvenile felony. His mother became a ward of the state and Bryner received visiting privileges.
Far-reaching consequences like these are rarely disclosed when juvenile adjudications are settled through plea bargains. Even if a lawyer were to lay them out clearly, it’s hard to imagine a 10-year-old, or even a 16-year-old, comprehending them. And parents often find it hard to forecast how the punishment will impact their children—not to mention their children’s children—decades into the future.
One woman in Olympia, Washington, whose son spent much of his time as a teenager locked up, worries about the trajectory of his life. He now has a daughter of his own, but he has been unable to get a job and move out of his parents’ house. He would like to be a counselor for troubled youth, but is legally unable to work with children. “At what point does the new beginning start?” his mother wonders. “At what point are we willing to offer another chance?”
Ponzanelli’s deportation proceedings started in early 2009 while he was serving his three-year sentence at various Texas prisons. As Ponzanelli remembers it, every few months he would be bused from his prison unit to the Goree Unit, a prison in Huntsville. He would sit in a room with other men, all of them waiting to be arraigned. Only a few of the men would be called back on any given day. After waiting for about six hours, he would be taken out of the Goree Unit and bused back to his cell.
During one of these visits, he was finally escorted from the waiting chamber into a teleconference hearing with a judge in Houston. Ponzanelli’s name was called and his case number read aloud. He doesn’t remember if a lawyer was present; he doesn’t remember the brief exchange of words. When the hearing ended, he left the room and returned to the waiting chamber until, some hours later, the bus picked him up and returned him to his cell.
After Ponzanelli received early parole, with a release date in June of 2010, he was transferred to The Walls, a facility where all Huntsville inmates go for discharge, regardless of their final destination. There, two Department of Homeland Security officers informed him that his charge was unambiguously deportable. He had two choices. He could sign the papers in front of him and voluntarily agree to leave the country—a gesture of cooperation that would expedite the process and could result in a shorter period of deportation—or fight to remain in Texas. He signed voluntarily. He and a few other men scheduled for deportation were then released into federal custody. In the evening, a passenger van carried them south to Houston, where a Contract Detention Facility managed by Immigration Customs and Enforcement housed them overnight.
The next morning—Ponzanelli thinks it was June 10, 2010—he was roused and led outside. He was not allowed to call anybody to say that he was being taken to the border. After hours of waiting, he was handed a bag with his properties, his cash, and a paper that notified him, at the bottom, that he had been sentenced to deportation for life. (I asked the regional spokesperson to confirm this but was told in a phone call that, in order to protect detainees’ privacy, the facility does not release information about old cases.)
According to Ponzanelli, Homeland Security agents cuffed him and the other men and then loaded them into a van that angled southwest along the Gulf Coast, over the Brazos River, into the low light of the setting sun. The men arrived after dark in the failing city of Laredo, which is filled with discount stores selling box fans and bundled white t-shirts. The van parked in the wide asphalt funnel that leads to the eight-lane Juárez–Lincoln International Bridge. Under certain circumstances, a ninth lane along the bridge’s west railing can be opened to foot traffic.
The group stepped down from the van and clustered before border guards who wore fatigues and military boots, automatic rifles slung over their backs. The deportees were given a brown bag with a sandwich and an eight-ounce carton of orange juice. They were uncuffed and marched to the middle of the bridge, where the guards stopped. The Rio Grande rolled below as the guards ordered the men over the threshold between two countries and told them to keep walking into the brightly lit fringes of Nuevo Laredo, the seat of Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel, Los Zetas. “They stood there watching us get to the other side,” Ponzanelli said. “I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do.”
Ponzanelli still lives in Nuevo Laredo. He works as a bartender on weekends and recently opened a tattoo parlor in the small house that he shares with a roommate. He thinks about seeking some kind of pardon to return to the U.S. “I’d want to go back if I could have my life again,” he said. “But if I’m going to be on the registry, then I don’t really care to return.” In Mexico, he says, at least he’s free.