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06/02/2006 - 7:56 a.m.

CHOICES

Next summer is looking ugly. I make my living doing criminal case appeals. I get the cases after conviction, usually approximately six to nine months after conviction. First come the crimes, then the pleas (and they are almost always pleas), and then the appeals. Here in my town, the pleas usually take five or six months. So, by my reckoning, our current bumper crop of shootings and killings should make it to my desk by next summer. It's shaping up to be a long one.

Although I read the paper, I have not been tracking the ages of this current crop of angry young men. I hate sitting across from the teens with dead eyes, dead hopes, dead friends, and, all too often, the ghost of those they have killed sitting on their shoulders. I believe in personal responsibility enough to be well aware that they have made bad choices, extremely bad choices. Yet I believe in the role of systems enough to be aware that, for most of them, we have given them few good choices and little immediate incentive, the type that young men see, to take those choices.

And the signs that some of them want those choices are out there. My city has a teen jobs program but it is limited. The line of those wanting the jobs was very long. No one disputed that there were many more teens than jobs. Like Detroit, my town is losing jobs. Many adults have trouble finding jobs here, particularly jobs that are on a bus line or within biking or walking distance. And actually landing the jobs requires more than just applying.

Yet my own children and many of their friends have summer jobs. I've taken to asking them how they got their jobs. Even when you take out those who are working for family, one theme remains: while they may have applied from an ad or a sign, they generally had some family or friendship connection with someone at the place. Kat, for example, who suddenly is working for Camp Anokijig as senior staff and not for her father, first thought about the job after a job fair but their interest in her was in part a result of Day's hard work at the camp as junior staff. The nice young man helping the custodial staff at my building is a nephew of one of the year-round workers who applied through an ad in the paper.

And how did I get many of my summer jobs and even most of my regular jobs over the years. I am a hard worker with a good resume and top grades but connection still was a part of it. I worked for the company my dad worked for one summer. I worked for a friend's mother's ad agency another summer. I was hired to teach at a time when only three people I knew from the education department at Michigan State University got jobs immediately (in 1978) because using the name of a teacher who was a family friend got my foot in the door. I have my current job in part because of the edge it gave me that one of the people on the hiring committee was part of a network with FogieKnight's boss. (Well, that and my computer skills. I'm not sure where my legal skills ranked in the whole process.)

No, I am not na´ve enough to believe that adequate summer jobs would solve the problems of this town and drop the current shooting rate. But neither am I na´ve enough to believe that jobs and connections do not matter and the playing field is level for all. The playing field is not level. Not even close---and education alone does not level it although it sure helps.

After all is said and done and the carnage of this summer passes out of the site of reporters, there will still be angry young men, few jobs, and bad personal choices. And the families of the dead, the maimed, and the shooters and some lawyers like me will be left to pick up the pieces.

I can't wait.

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