Rivera shares courtroom stories

by Katie Lieberg | 11/5/01 6:00am

When Marlon Rivera was 11 years old, he made what he calls his "first decision to run" and escaped from one group of gang members into the acceptance of another. This was the beginning of a gang career that ended six years later in a courtroom in Los Angeles, when a caring Jesuit priest helped to reduce Rivera's 17-years-to-life sentence to four years in juvenile hall.

"I carried a gun every day of my life, since I was 14 until I was 16," Rivera admitted Saturday to an audience of Dartmouth students and professors gathered in Cook Auditorium for the student science congress on "Violence in Adolescence."

"And I'm not saying it was a small gun," he added.

Rivera was the final speaker in an all-day series that began with discussions of the biological origins of violence. Recent research indicates that the teenage mind, a mind that many would concur is not yet fully able to discern appropriate courses of action, is indeed more susceptible to the influence of media violence and peer pressure.

Studies are also showing that this susceptibility to influence makes the juvenile more reformable. Concurrent with this research, however, is an increasing push to see youths tried in the adult court system.

Justice Joe Brandolino of the California Supreme court outlined the complex history of the juvenile justice system at Saturday's symposium. A separate court was first created for juveniles during the Progressive Era, when protests about 11-year-old children receiving the death penalty began to question whether the system was doing right by younger offenders.

In the 1960s, concerns about whether the juvenile offenders were being guaranteed their constitutional rights contributed to a re-formalization of the system, taking with its laxness its ability to care for each offender on an individual basis.

"The idea that the system should be rehabilitative rather than punitive is at the heart of the juvenile court system," Judge Brandolino said. "A move toward the adult system means more punishment and less rehabilitation."

Rivera joined Sister Janet Harris and author Karen Hunt to represent the reform side of the story. Rivera described the day he was incarcerated: "when you get robbed of your life, I think that's something beyond the grasp of reality. When you are sent into the adult system, they stop caring about you."

But individual attention, mentoring and therapeutic programs like the writing project that Hunt started can rebuild the lives of juvenile offenders, often giving them the care they never received in the home.

After listening to the speakers, the attending students fill out ballots which are counted to indicate a consensus on the issues. A discussion of the results of the Student Ballots and reactions to the Congress will be held tomorrow.

Saturday's Symposium was the 3rd annual congress of its kind; past student science congresses have explored stem cell research and the AIDS epidemic.