Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Juvenile Illiteracy

I posted the link to Caleb Sosa on Monday, but I just didn't have time to discuss it.  And, wow, is there a lot to discuss.

First, like most news articles, it is light on the facts that would allow the reader to make any informed decision other than the one the article wants you to draw.  They do not tell us what the evidence against Sosa was - eyewitnesses, DNA, or just the confession at issue.  We don't know whether the confession was even admissible at trial against him.

Second, the article discusses how Sosa could not even write his initials without instruction, yet he was about to sign off on a plea but then rejected it.  The key being HE WAS ABOUT TO SIGN HIS NAME FOR A PLEA.  Did he learn to read and write while locked up?  He has gone from not knowing how to write the first letters of his name to being able to read and sign legal documents yet it is not discussed.

Third, it would have been an interesting civil trial, had the city lawyer filed the appropriate paperwork.  A claim that the police violated Sosa's civil rights by forcing him to sign a confession he couldn't read would be difficult to prove.  Even at fourteen, a person should be able to read.  Sosa would have to bring in his family and teachers and describe how they had failed him for his entire life by letting him live without learning the most basic skills. 

The trial would essentially put the city of Detroit's education system and parental structure on trial.  I am certain that Sosa made it through elementary school.  Sosa would basically have to put on witnesses to demonstrate his illiteracy and explain how they all let it happen.  It is no secret that reading and writing levels in large cities are horribly low.  Total illiteracy though?  How can we as a society allow this to happen?

Fourth, as JeffO has pointed out, the money is a large amount for a headline, but spread over 40 years it is $27,500 per year before taxes.  That's hardly a sum enough to justify spending time in prison as an innocent man. 

My first jury trial involved a 25-year-old man who claimed illiteracy.  The victim claimed that the defendant shot him twice in the stairwell of an apartment building because the victim got in an argument with the defendant's girlfriend.  The gun was recovered a month later inside the girlfriend's apartment.  When the defendant was arrested, he spoke to the police.  They wanted him to write his own statement, but he said he could not read and write.  The police wrote his statement for him, read it to him, and then he signed it.  He was able to sign his name.  An hour later, the defendant wanted to make another statement.  He had some changes to the first one.  They went through the same process and the defendant signed it. 

At trial, he claimed the detective never read him the statements and he did not know what he was signing.  His mother took the stand and described his illiteracy.  I only asked the mother whether she read to him and if he understood what she read.  She agreed he did. 

The problem with the statements was that they both provided a defense to the shooting.  Why would the detective, when he could write anything he wanted without the defendant knowing, write two separate statements that contained defenses?  If he was fabricating the statements, why wouldn't the detective write the most damaging confession possible?

The evidence in my case was overwhelming and the defendant's version of events did not match the physical evidence.  The jury found him guilty.

Illiteracy is an enormous problem in society and also a hurdle police officers must overcome on a daily basis.  The Caleb Sosa civil trial would have been a hard look at the education system in America and I would have loved to follow it.  Unfortunately, we will not be able to due to a procedural error. 


  1. Very interesting post. With all the technology people are addicted to these days like phones and computers, I find it hard to believe that a majority of people don't have some rudimentary level of literacy. But I know that illiteracy is a very real problem in society. That's a tough one.

  2. I've taught in city schools before, at the elementary level. It's like beating your head against the wall. You are not just trying to pull kids out of the ghetto by teaching them the basic skills that will allow them to succeed at higher education levels (and eventually in society), you are trying to break through a culture that rejects much of what we are trying to teach them. When we get them at 6, 7, and 8 years old, it's sometimes too late, as this story sadly points out. I apologize if this sounds crass, but I can see where that annual $27,500 sounds like a whole lot of money to this young man, given the circumstances of his youth.

    If that child (and at 14, he was still a child) learned how to read and write in prison, then that says some very good things about that prison -- essentially, they accomplished what the family and the Detroit elementary schools could not. If not, and he actually went into prison with this knowledge, then he was a very good actor at age 14 who, I assume, at some point was probably coached by a very good defense attorney.

    1. I see it every day doing juvenile crime. By the time they are at the end of middle school, it is too late. We need intervention when they are just starting school. It has to be frustrating to teach and not have any positive reinforcement at home to reinforce what was learned.

  3. I see it all the time in the courtroom, especially back when I had a grant to work juvenile cases on the side. It was extremely disturbing . I also see it in the public school system in our area. My kids attend public school in the magnet program, and I am often shocked by the degree and severity of illiteracy that some of the students suffer. I do not know how they have advanced to the grade level they are in. It is sad and I feel like it is an epidemic that is not being addressed.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

  4. Years ago when I taught, they advanced these kids because they physically had to. There just was not enough room to keep all the holdovers and deal with the incoming. And it made no sense psychologically to have 9-year-olds still struggling to accomplish goals alongside 5 and 6-year-olds. Here is where I think a system of lateral grading rather than successive grading might help, but you would have to have highly motivated kids to make something like that work (which I suspect is the secret to the success of some of the magnet schools.

    By the time we get these kids in school, much of the damage has been done. The lifestyle has been inculcated, and since they spend more time at home than at school, we are bound to lose them, especially since, as they grow, the kids are unable to separate concepts of "lifestyle" from other concepts like "family." Thus rejecting one is like rejecting the other, and that just isn't going to happen.

    IMHO, which I realized no one asked for, I think we need to start in the homes. I don't think we need expensive social programs (those, remember, are "outside the home;" we need to get inside the home). If I ran the world ;-) I would redirect some of our tax money from wasteful entitlements to pay daily mentors to be inside the home, every day, to compeer with families and teach them simple, basic values like good child care, the importance of effective house-cleaning, how to live on a small budget (excuse me, but lots of us do it all the time). I truly believe that once people get to the point of seeing how great it can be to live without cockroaches and rats crossing the kitchen floor (in an accomplishment that required the whole family's cooperation)and enjoying a child'd hug rather than considering it an inconvenient interruption of a text conversation or a video game, it will be easier to see why mom AND dad should worry when 14-year-old Junior is out until midnight or 2 a.m.every night I think this is a first step toward replacing a culture of entitlement with one of responsibility. Once we can cohesce families on some (admittedly) middle-class type goals, I think that would be the first step towards getting them to take a second look at education, not only for their children but for themselves. . . I would hope. . .

    Maybe I have been reading too much about FDR lately, but I do think if one compares the culture of the 1930s, where education, regardless of whether one had it or not, was valued and a strong work ethic prevailed, and that of today, where both are sadly lacking, one can easily see where programs like the "workfare" of the WPA succeeded (man, he won three terms!!, and our welfare assistance programs don't.

    Again, I wasn't asked, but I think things like Brown v Board of Education (CT)is like putting the cart before the horse. It can be done, but it can't be done successfully, IMHO, until we get into these homes and change the culture coming from it. I also think the sheer impossibility of instituting its mandates is what allows CT to keep pushing them back further and further. Some of it has been done -- there are a few towns who bus kids in and out to suburbia --but this occurred mostly (when I was there, anyway) a few schools in the attached suburbs. The real stuff remains to be done.

    OK, someone dragged the soapbox away, so I suppose it's time to return you to your regularly scheduled program.

    1. Don't worry Susan. I started this blog based on humble opinions no one asked for and people keep coming back.

      Thanks for the insights and we all appreciate the comments. As a juvenile prosecutor, your thoughts touch on the conditions I see every day that can make a career criminal - lack of education, poor family structure, and no life training.