COLUMBUS, Ohio — Stolen cars and gun crimes. Violence has been on the rise across the nation and here in the Columbus metro area in recent months.
Those behind the acts are often teenagers, some as young as 14 who find themselves in and out of the juvenile justice system.
Because of their age and legal rights, we often don’t hear from them. Until now.
To understand the driving force behind the growing problem, what can be done to solve it, and make our neighborhoods safer, we sit down one-on-one with teens who’ve been in the system.
“It was a point in time, where I didn't feel like I had a purpose," said Patric Chandler.
Patric and Gabriel Mathieu found themselves behind bars, before their 18th birthday.
“When I was 14. I really started going downhill,“ explained Gabriel.
Gabriel said peer pressure played a major role in shifting him off track.
“Was there a fear that you could end up dead one day?” asked 10TV’s Andrew Kinsey.
“Yes sir. From the people T was hanging out with. Some of the people I was hanging out with were in gangs,” said Gabriel.
A night out with a group of guys two years ago ended with a 2 a.m. traffic stop and a discovery by officers that thrust Mathieu into the juvenile justice system.
A stolen gun in the car that Gabriel claims he had nothing to do with.
“But you can't just tell a police officer that someone left a gun in the car. They aren't going to believe that,” explained Gabriel.
A judge found him guilty of a concealed weapon and receiving stolen property charges. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
“I had a lot of positive things going on for myself,” said Patric.
Much like Gabriel, life early on for Patric seemed good. He had a family who encouraged him. Sparking a flame that would eventually be smothered by grief from the death of loved ones, anger and negative peer pressure.
Patric went from a stand-out to a drop-out. Loyalty to his best friend became his top priority.
“I feel like if I would have kept trying to be a positive person to him, he would still be here and we would be living a better life and making better decisions,” explained Patric Chandler.
One bad decision in November of 2020, would shake Chandler to his core.
“I couldn't sleep. I told police to kill me because I didn't want to live anymore without him,” said Chandler.
Patric watched his best friend die from a gunshot wound. The bullet he says was fired, as his friend played with the weapon.
However, weeks later, police charged Chandler with reckless homicide and gun specification. Charges that he plead not guilty to.
"Everybody that's doing this right now, they know right from wrong. They know what they should, and shouldn't be doing,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel said many of the teens stealing cars, committing murders and other violent offenses could be seeking a thrill or validation - with little concern for consequences.
“There are regulations and there are rules. We as judges have to comply with. And Kids have their rights too. They have rights, just like the adult does,” explained Judge Monica Hawkins of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Domestic Division and Juvenile Branch.
Hawkins said the criminal issues with our teens were fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. She also explained they were cut off from social connections and services that help steady them.
Right now, Hawkins said the median age for those appearing in her courtroom is 14 years old. Many who re-offend are back a few months later.
“The kids that come here are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. They are dealing with neglect. They are usually on our A and D docket – Abuse, Neglect - Dependency. Usually come from homes with less income, less stable homes,” said Hawkins.
Rules and laws are different for juveniles than adults, especially how juveniles are released after being charged.
“It's a bunch of factors and stuff that we consider. We as judges aren't just letting people out,” explained Hawkins.
Juveniles can't pay their way out with a bond. Their freedom hinges on laws and a screening system judges are required to follow.
“It considers their past history, any past crimes, any violent crimes - it takes all that, and it has a scoring system. And that pretty much determines who gets released and who gets to stay,” said Hawkins.
While the courts have been criticized for this practice, several research studies support it.
According to the Juvenile Law Center, research confirms that locking children up for long periods of time causes more harm than good and does little to protect our communities.
As for Patrick and Gabe, life for them has changed for the better. Patric joined the Army as a human resource specialist.
“I ended up joining the army to do positive things so that I can build a career. Because there is nothing in the streets,” explained Chandler.
Gabriel is finishing high school and maintaining a job he loves.
“I got a second chance, so I knew I didn't want to keep doing the same thing I was doing before and being the same person, I was before. And end up in jail or end up dead. I want better myself,” said Gabriel.
Both young men say they hope their stories of redemption will inspire other teens to do what's right.
Right now, Gabe is working to get his record expunged.
The charges against Patric are still pending as he awaits a trial date.