Dante Cottingham was legally ripped from his childhood when he was convicted as an adult at age 17. His message 18 years later: Reform the juvenile justice system.
Thousands of children are being waived into the adult courts annually. A bizarre fact, considering the brilliance comprising America in many other areas. Though I believe this trend persists simply because other people are unaware, the intent of this article is to generate awareness about what’s happening to children, of almost any age, every single day in America.
At age seventeen I was arrested and charged with party to homicide. Pursuant to Wisconsin law, 11-17-year-old children alleged to have committed certain offenses are automatically under exclusive jurisdiction of the adult courts.
I attended a waiver hearing, a formality, and watched as the Judge read some apparently “magical” words from a big book, then with the waving and pounding of his “magical wand” he cast a “spell,” transforming me into a mature, intelligent adult with a developed prefrontal cortex, with the ability to understand legal issues, procedures, potential legal defenses and possible pleas and penalties. A magical spell that made me capable of appraising the roles of the defense and counsel, prosecutor, Judge, Jury, witnesses and defendant, comprehending instructions, maintaining a collaborative relationship with my lawyer, help plan legal strategies, disclose pertinent facts surrounding the alleged offense and protecting myself by utilizing legal safe guards.
Unfortunately, for myself and thousands of children across America, the Judge’s spell didn’t work, and I remained a child despite his proclamations. Consequently the fog of confusion enveloped me immediately. For though it’s widely assumed that a child’s parents or attorney have the authority to make final legal decisions, truth is, that responsibility is the child’s. But my ability to understand legal strategy, charges against me, even to comprehend sentences spoken by my attorney, prosecutors and Judge was constantly inadequate, making it impossible to participate in my own defense.
My lawyer tried to explain, and though I feigned understanding it was naturally impossible to comprehend. I felt lost, stupid and powerless throughout court proceedings. Propitiation was my natural response, answering all questions by the judge and prosecutor any way I thought they wanted. I wanted everything over A.S.A.P so I accepted an outrageous plea bargain. Though I’m not innocent I’m certainly not guilty of what I pled guilty to. Compounding an already oppressive situation, the Judge didn’t adhere to the terms of the bargain, and sentenced me to eleven more years. I’ll be eligible for parole in 2020, I’ll be 42 years old. I left those court appearances not remembering many of the sentences spoken in them, though to this day I remember quite clearly, the arrangement of the court furniture.
I was transferred from an adult jail to an adult maximum security prison. G.B.C.I is by far the toughest prison in the state, harboring violent and sophisticated prisoners. I was “transformed” into an adult so the prison treated me accordingly. I was placed in general population and expected to fend for myself amongst violent prisoners and aggressive guards.
Initially my circumstances were hard to believe. I remember believing my mom and the judge secretly concocted my sentence, putting me in prison to teach me a lesson, thought the Judge would soon call, chastise me and then release me to my mom. I waited a couple years for that to happen.
Thank you for your time and for allowing me to share my story with you.
-Dante Cottingham, #259241