I have been an at-risk youth mentor in the City of St. Louis for going on three years now, and I have seen a lot concerning the troubled teens in our region. Some of the particulars include disturbing environments, lack of safe havens, illiteracy, trauma and abuse, mental health neglect, undiagnosed disabilities, teen homelessness, parental abandonment, teachers failing children, politicians failing children, society failing children – and, saddest of all, kids raising themselves. I’ve seen it all with my own eyes.
Specifically targeting court-involved youth, I have run a faith-based program in the Juvenile Detention Center in St. Louis. I also go into homes in the worst areas. I go into abandoned buildings, and I do one-on-ones with some of the most troubled kids in the area. In doing this, I have developed a compassion and understanding concerning youth involved in crime.
Here are some of their stories. I’m hoping that these testimonials will provide a deeper insight into the lives of these minors. They help explain why I believe it is morally right and fundamentally necessary to treat these children with youth-appropriate services, provide age-appropriate interventions, keep these children in youth-appropriate facilities and raise the age when a child can enter the adult criminal justice system—instead of lowering the age.
Who are the children in the criminal justice system?
Jeron Lemmitt is the 18-year-old charged in the Galleria Mall shooting. The crime that he committed was wrong. However, did you know that Jeron’s mother was murdered in front of him by her boyfriend, only a few years ago? Jeron witnessed the whole thing. I met Jeron in the Juvenile Detention Center when he was 15 years old. I talked with this young man face to face. I had to ask him several times to speak up, because his voice was very low. He almost mumbled his every word as if he were talking to me but at the same time, lost in thought.
He explained to me, almost immediately, what happened to his mom. During our conversation, I felt compelled to tell this child these words, “Jeron, Jesus loves you” and instantly, tears filled his eyes. We read some literature together, and I asked him who he talks to while in isolation. (Yes, isolation.) He said himself, God and sometimes a chaplain.
I never forgot this child. I asked about him because I wanted to personally mentor him outside of my program; however, he was released from the youth facility before I could get back to him. I wrote his name on a prayer cloth and put it up. A few days before the mall incident, I was walking down the hall of my home when he crossed my mind—heavily. Immediately, I started searching for the handkerchief where I’d written his name. Unfortunately, I could not find it. A few days later, I looked up and saw his picture on the news.
Ramon White is an 18-year-old charged with attempted carjacking and shooting. He is not new to the system. In 2017, when he was 15, he was charged with the killing of another 13-year-old. He was pulled from the Juvenile Detention Center and certified as an adult; however, he beat the case in 2019.
I helped to co-mentor this youth along with his primary mentor (“Ms. Shellie”). We visited Ramon in both the JDC and the St. Louis Justice Center—where they had him isolated, with no educational or behavioral programming appropriate for his age, nor could he receive up-close visits. Ramon was very suicidal, mentioning repeatedly that he wanted to take his life. Thankfully, his primary mentor coached him through it.
We asked Ramon what it is that he most wanted to do with his life. His answer: “I want to join the Army. I want to retire from the military.” When Ramon’s release began approaching, I personally went into an Army recruitment office and explained that I needed help for this child. I talked with soldiers, as well as sergeants. I informed them that Ramon needed to be off the streets and out of his home if he was going to survive.
The sergeant that I’d spoken with told me that they could get Ramon “out of here” in under two months. He just needed to take a GED test and two other tests. He’d also need his mother’s approval because he was only 16 at the time.
Once Ramon was released, his primary mentor went to his home and saw a high level of adult dysfunction. There was no respectable authority present, and there was a lot of drug usage. The mentor informed Ramon’s mother that we wanted to get Ramon tested and recruited into the Army. Ramon’s mother answered, “No son of mine is going into the military.”
And, just like that, we lost Ramon to the streets. He could not stay off drugs because his household filled the air with it—and he could not complete any continuing education classes because he could not focus due to distractions of his own home and neighborhood environments. The last time I spoke with Ramon was when I received a tip that he was in the park about to commit suicide. I called his phone and asked him if he wanted to talk. He said, “Yes.”
I asked what was bothering him, he said, “I don’t have a place to live.” Not too long after, Ramon was on the news.
Marcus Ursery is a 14-year-old who will be tried as an adult for the murder of another 14-year-old. I also met Marcus in the Juvenile Detention Center, but recently he was moved to an adult facility. Marcus faces adult charges for a very serious crime. But did you know that Marcus dealt with a lot of homelessness, parental neglect, poor literacy and education?
The court claimed in its language that this child was “mature” and able to stand competent as an adult. Well, the truth is, this child is not mature at all and is very much a child. He has not had the focus, stability, or structure needed to gain sufficient education or proper mental development due to his circumstances. Physically, he is small, and I wonder how he would be able to survive living around grown men in a prison. My heart aches!
Marcus needs stability, guidance, and education. And he needs trauma and mental health support—not prison time in an adult facility facing jail time for three times the years he’s been alive.
Then there’s another 14-year-old whom we call Meko. Meko dealt with parental neglect (absent father and a mother who was rarely home), which led to him into trouble. As a result, he had to spend some time in the Juvenile Detention Center. Sadly, not long after Meko was released, his mother was shot in their home, allegedly by her boyfriend. During the shooting, Meko hid. After the shooting, when he went to look for his mother, he could not find her. He only saw blood on the mattress. After searching around, Meko found his mom—dead behind the house.
These are just some of the more recent stories that you may have seen publicized on the news. However, there are many more cases and stories concerning court-involved youth that I have encountered.
In sharing these stories, I want those in charge of policies and legislation to truly understand that these are children – children in need of help, not long-term jail time. They need advocates, mentors, and youth transformation homes—not adult prison sentencing. Please remember that these are children, not yet developed—ask any doctor, ask any scientist, ask any mentor and child advocate.
Edited from testimony made before the House Committee on the Judiciary on Monday, August 10.