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Robert Barton: Imprisoned at 16 for the company he kept

Rob Barton in Georgetown T-shirt
Rob Barton

At the age of 16, I was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life. I was not the actual shooter in this crime, but I was judged to be as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger, due to a provision of the law that treats “aiders and abettors” as equally criminally liable.

Was I guilty? Yes. No one forced me to ride along. Did I have the same malicious intent as my codefendant, the shooter? The answer to that question is more ambiguous. I knew what was going down. On a daily basis, I regret the decision to go along that day—not just because of the decades I’ve lost in the free world, but also because of the loss of life I witness. I was essentially still a child, and very confused about where and how I fit into a world that had already abused me.

Growing up in tough surroundings

I grew up in a tough southeast D.C. neighborhood in a single-parent household. My mom loved me and showed it in so many ways, but my father — who rotated through prison himself and abandoned us early on — exposed me at the age of 10 to the world of drugs and hustling. (Imagine this: When my mother sent me to my father after a childish incident of shoplifting for a “man-to-man talk,” he drove me to the strip where he hustled, parading me around like his mascot. For the rest of the short time we were together that day, he sold drugs out of his car while I watched.) I became involved myself, using and selling drugs, in the sixth grade.

A different world

Rob in a group of Georgetown University students
Rob and his Georgetown Prison Scholar class

Then, in April 2017, the D.C. Council passed IRAA (Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act), which allows juvenile lifers to petition for a sentence reduction after serving at least 20 years of their sentences (lowered to 15 years in 2019) and showing that they are rehabilitated. I petitioned to be considered for release and was sent to the D.C. jail to await my hearing. It was there that I was treated, for the first time, with humanity and respect. At the same time, I was offered an array of development opportunities. And I took advantage of every one. I was accepted into the Georgetown Prison Scholars program, earning a 4.0 grade average. I became a mentor for the Young Men Emerging program (for 18- to 25-year-olds in the criminal justice system).

Unfortunately, I lost my chance for freedom, so tantalizingly close, when my IRAA petition was denied because of a disciplinary infraction three years prior, when I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what I wish I could communicate to everyone reading this. Prison is a highly abnormal environment and it elicits a response that would be considered abnormal in the outside world. As Viktor Frankl once wrote, “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” I was sent to hell (the worst penitentiaries in the country) as a juvenile; to expect me (and others) to come out unburnt is just not being realistic or just. Today, I await my first parole hearing, thanks to a new D.C. Council law designed to release more District residents from federal prisons amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve paid a steep debt to society for my behavior so long ago. But my childhood does not define me. I hope I’m given a chance to prove it.

 

 

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