I've always been appalled by the practice of putting kids away for long periods of time -- in most parts of the world, even the worst teenage criminals are given some chance at rehabilitation -- and the more I looked into the story, the more troubling I found Colorado's system of justice in general and the gentleman's clique that seemed to be running the Boulder courts at the time in particular.
I stayed in touch with Josh after his return to prison; we exchanged perhaps a couple of letters a year. He turned out to have a sensitivity to others that I wouldn't have expected, given his background. Early on, he wondered if I'd prefer not to get letters from him because the prison's return address might be embarrassing. He sent Chanukah rather than Christmas cards -- something few non-Jewish people think to do. And when I approached him about following up on the story I'd written about his situation back in 2000, "This Boy's Life," his primary concern was that it might distress Dayton James's daughters.
The update was sparked by an e-mail I got a few months back from Raymond Mallette, who had hired Josh about a month earlier and is working on a master's in management with a focus on criminal justice (he's since moved on to another job). "Josh is a great guy," he wrote, "and having an interest in the criminal justice system... I find myself needing to express that here is some 'good' the system has done. Josh is a 'yes sir' 'no sir' kind of employee. Today when I handed him his check, he thanked me for giving him a chance. My heart went out to him and I really wish I could do more to help him. I implore you to consider a 'follow-up' article. I'll talk to anyone necessary and see whoever I have to see to work with you on helping Josh find his way into society once again. Talk to me."
It was nice seeing Josh walking toward me in that Boulder coffee shop and odd, too, to be revisiting a story into which I'd put so much effort and research over ten years earlier. I interviewed him more than once, and every time I found myself searching his eyes, trying to figure out who he was, if he'd really matured and reformed, if the transformation people talked about was real. He sometimes seemed slightly amused by my intensity, but his answer was always the same: He was going to do fine. He was going to atone for the wrongs he'd done. But things will get difficult sometimes, I persisted, and he was facing a very difficult economic climate. Better to be in a bad economic climate than where he'd been before, he said.
A lot of teenagers lose their entire lives in this justice system. Some of them are incorrigible. But others were trapped for minor crimes, criminal impulses they would have grown out of, or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many are still in solitary confinement -- and have been there far longer than the three and half years Josh endured. Each and every one of them has a story that should be told. (For many of these stories, see the Westword links below.)
I have no way of knowing how Josh's life will turn out, but I find myself hoping very strongly that he'll succeed. In a world filled with so much darkness and injustice, a single and persistent light can mean a lot.
For more about juveniles sentenced as adults in Colorado, read Luke Turf's "Headed for Trouble," which follows the Erik Jensen and Nate Ybanez case; as well as Alan Prendergast's story on how Governor Bill Ritter failed to commute the sentence of any juveniles, "Bill Ritters commutations draw praise, bitter rebukes" and his article on the Pendulum Foundation and juvenile sentencing, "Is trying juveniles as adults crule and unusual?" For more on clemency, read Prendergast's "Clemency for these six prisoners could save millions and serve justice -- so why won't Governor Ritter try it?" And for a Frontline piece on kids sentenced to life, click here.