Between 1978 and 1993, the rate at which adults were arrested for murder declined by about 7 percent, while the rate for juveniles skyrocketed by 177 percent. Some prominent criminologists, such as John DiIulio and James Q. Wilson, believe the huge increase among juvenile criminals reflects the rise of "super-predators," a new breed of sociopathic kids who are qualitatively different from past generations of offenders.
In "Juvenile Crime and Punishment," a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Harvard University's Steven D. Levitt suggests an alternative explanation for the boom in adolescent anarchy: It reflects "a rational...response to a change in the relative incentives for juveniles and adults to engage in criminal activities." Levitt notes that over the past two decades the adult prison population tripled, while juvenile lock-ups failed to keep pace. Since kids were more likely to get away with crime, he suggests, they were more likely to engage in it.
Levitt calculates that the ratio of adult state and federal prisoners to violent crimes committed by adults, a "rough proxy" for the severity of the criminal justice system, rose from 0.34 to 0.55, an increase of over 60 percent, from 1978 to 1993. The corresponding ratio for young offenders, however, declined from 0.36 to 0.29. Juvenile punishments, concludes Levitt, "were comparable to adult punishments in 1978, but were only about half as severe in 1993."
Levitt notes that in states where adult offenders are much more likely to be imprisoned than juveniles, violent crime rates drop by 25 percent when a cohort becomes a legal adult. Far from indicating a new breed of "super-predator," such findings suggest that young criminals--like their older counterparts--can be deterred by the threat of doing time.
It was Monday morning. I wasn’t in the mood. It was freezing cold and wet, and even though it was almost 8am, it looked more like 8pm. It was at times like this that I missed Nigeria with a passion.
There was still ample space on the tube when I boarded at Harrow-on-the-Hill. It would not become crowded until Baker Street. From Baker Street on, it would be packed like a sardine tin, bodies squeezing against bodies, and the strange metallic smell of oyibo people filling your nostrils. Finding space to stand without feeling like a human sandwich would be difficult, and finding a free seat was completely out of the question for anyone boarding at that point. Like I said before, I wasn’t in the mood.
I chose a seat near the doors and sat down. At least in this position I could count on a bit of fresh air whenever the doors opened at each station. I settled in and turned up the volume on my iPod, filling my ears with the sounds of Wizkid’s Pakurumo. The kid’s talent was undeniable, sha. He, along with Davido, Brymo, Ice Prince, Flavour, Bracket, P-Square, and 9ice would keep me entertained for the duration of the twelve tube stops between Harrow-on-the-Hill and my destination, Liverpool Street.
As the train eased out of the station, I zoned out, losing myself in my Naija jams. Music was the one constant connection I maintained with the country of my birth. None of my siblings lived there anymore. We were all scattered around the UK and America, and so my parents often divided their year equally between Leeds, London, Glasgow, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Onitsha. As a result, I hadn’t been back in over six years. I saw my folks all the time, and then the odd times when I had time off work and might have travelled back home, my nomadic parents wouldn’t even be there themselves. “We’ve raised all our children,” my mum liked to say. “You were the only one left, and you too you’re grown now. What do you want us to do, just sit at home and wait to die?”
At Finchley Road, a tall blonde woman got on the train and sat down directly opposite me, crossing her legs. She was what an English person would describe as ‘well fit’. As in, she was very attractive, by oyibo standards. I wasn’t impressed, though. She was way too thin. Not a single curve in sight. And I found her watery green eyes disconcerting rather than alluring. Her less-than-generous lips made her look almost cruel to me, and her pointed nose looked like you had to be extremely careful when trying to kiss her or that thing could easily poke your eye out.
She saw me looking at her, and instinctively pulled her handbag closer to herself. I shook my head in resigned incredulity. I was wearing a suit, for crying out loud! Anyway,I don’t blame you, I thought. After all, monkey wey knack suit na still monkey, abi? Na corporate monkey, sha, but na still monkey im be.
It occurred to me fleetingly that she may have been reacting to something other than the fact that I’m black; such as the fact that a big, strange man was looking at her with an expression on his face that said ‘What’s so special about you, anyway?’
However, not being in the mood to give her the benefit of the doubt, I banished the thought from my mind and reverted to my original conclusion that she was just racist. Judgement passed, case closed.
The rush hit us at Baker Street, as expected. Suddenly the train was packed full, and I could no longer see more than a few feet ahead of me. Masses of bodies stood everywhere, blocking my view in every direction. There was no empty seat in sight, and yet the number of commuters standing surely surpassed the number sitting. And most people in Nigeria probably thought this kind of thing only happened on Molue buses in Lagos! If they only knew.
The doors slid closed and the train moved off again. Seven more stops till I got to my destination. This was the section of my daily commute that I hated the most. I offered up a silent prayer that there would not be any delays today. I didn’t want to sit in that train any longer than I already had to.
Three stops later, at King’s Cross St. Pancras, a light-skinned black guy carrying a briefcase got on the train as a few commuters were getting off. He was wearing a well-tailored dark grey suit and a brown, expensive-looking long woollen coat. I knew instantly from his posture and his swagger that he was Nigerian. He stopped and stood right in front of me because I was sitting by the door and there was nowhere for him to go as the train was still packed. He glanced at me as he steadied himself for the train to start moving, and we both gasped in surprise.
“Nnamdi!” he exclaimed, his face incredulous.
“Ezenwa!” I sprang up and pumped his hand vigorously, before enveloping him in a hug and then shaking his hand some more. “Na you be this?”
He laughed. “Na me o!”
“Whaaat? Wetin you dey do here? I thought they said you were in Yankee!”
He nodded. “I am.” Then he realised what he had just said. “I mean, I live in New York. I’m here on an assignment for my job.”
I laughed at that, not because of what he had just said, but because ‘job’ had come out as ‘jab’ when he said it. Bloody Americans.
“Wait,” I said, “Don’t tell me. Wall Street?”
He smiled. “That obvious, is it?”
I chuckled. On one hand it wasn’t surprising that Ezenwa had ended up on Wall Street. He loved money. With a passion. On the other hand, though, it was strange to see him so straight-laced, serious, and most importantly, in a suit. He was even wearing glasses, sef. Now, that might not seem like much to the general public, but anyone that had known Ezenwa as a teenager would have been absolutely shocked to see him like this.
Ezenwa and I had grown up in the same neighbourhood in Onitsha. And the last time I’d actually seen him, we’d been sitting together in a cramped police cell with eighteen hardened criminals.
It was the year we finished secondary school. We were waiting for JAMB and WAEC to release our results, and spent our days driving around in our fathers’ cars, chilling at whoever’s house was ‘the place’ that day, and drinking beer at the local isi ewu joint in the evening. There were four of us that did everything together. At weekends we’d drive down to the Federal Government Girls College on the outskirts of town, park near a gap in the fence, and sneak out three or four of the more ‘adventurous’ SS3 girls. They’d pile into our cars, chattering and laughing excitedly, and we’d take them back into town and show them a good time. The whole school would buzz with details of their escapades throughout the next week, and that weekend a whole new set of girls would be waiting for us at the fence. We thought we were the shit. Upon reflection, though, we were just overgrown children.
That October, Ezenwa’s father travelled to the US on business, and took their mum with him. That was when the trouble started.
“Na im be say groove don set, now!” Ezenwa declared, and the rest of us cheered in agreement.
We set about collecting as much alcohol as we could lay our hands on. Everybody raided their father’s drink cabinet, and by that Friday we had accumulated an impressive stash, boasting a couple of bottles of Remy Martin, some Gordon’s Dry Gin, Jack Daniels, Smirnoff Vodka, Johnnie Walker, some Barcadi, and a whole carton of red wine. We all knew we’d answer for those missing bottles at a later date, but we were quite prepared to brave that future day of reckoning just so that Saturday could happen. Next, we bought lots of coke, sprite, and juice to mix the drinks with, and ordered meat pies, sausage rolls and fried chicken to be picked up on Saturday.
Word of the party had spread like wildfire through the Federal Government Girls College, and so there were over twenty girls at the fence that evening. Cars were quickly filled up, and we were off to Ezenwa’s house for a night of unprecedented revelry.
The next day we were all feeling like kings, secure in the knowledge that our legendary status among our peers in that town was now confirmed. But Ezenwa was not satisfied.
“But why this man go lock im Beamer inside garage, carry key travel?” he asked. We were at his house again, going over our exploits from the night before.
“Because im sabi say im son dey craze,” Chuka retorted, grinning from ear to ear. If Chuka was to be believed, he had ‘banged’ two different girls at the party the night before. Ezenwa certainly didn’t believe him, and I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.
“The 505 wey dem leave for you no do you?” That was Obinna. The voice of reason.
Ezenwa tossed his head impatiently, his mind already ticking. I knew that look. He’d obviously decided he preferred his father’s new BMW to his father’s four-year-old 505, and he was going to cruise around town in said BMW even if it was the last thing he ever did.
He began to pace back and forth in the room. “I need that Beamer.”
“You dey craze,” I said. “And besides, it’s locked in the garage and you don’t have the keys to either the car or the garage.”
Ezenwa stopped pacing and looked at me. “But I know where they’re both likely to be.”
“I’m not liking the sound of this,” Obinna announced.
“Where?” Chuka asked.
Ezenwa walked over to his bed, slid his hand under a corner of the thick mattress, and pulled out a single key. It was a duplicate; one that he had probably cut from the original.
“Bad boy!” Chuka exclaimed.
“I hope that’s not what I think it is,” Obinna said, shaking his head.
“I’ll be back,” Ezenwa said, and set off upstairs in the direction of his parents’ room.
“Boys, na waka o!” Obinna said. “My hand no dey for dis one. Tell Ezenwa say I go see am after.” He got up, threw us a peace sign, and left.
“Carton man,” Chuka said. “Obino too dey fear, sef.”
Soon after, there was a loud crash from the courtyard. Chuka and I rushed outside and stared, along with the gateman and other house helps that had also rushed out, at the cause of the commotion. A big, heavy metal safe was lying on the concrete in the centre of the courtyard, its door ripped off its hinges by the impact of its fall. On the balcony outside his parents’ room stood Ezenwa, looking down at us and the safe. Then he disappeared back indoors and reappeared downstairs at the front door.
While the rest of us watched with open mouths and wide eyes, Ezenwa walked calmly over to the shattered safe, bent over it, and peered inside. Then he reached into the safe and retrieved a set of car keys, the garage key, five wads of crisp fifty naira notes, and an expensive-looking gold watch. I stood there transfixed, not believing what I was seeing.
Ezenwa walked over to the garage and unlocked it, all the while seemingly oblivious to the people gathered and staring at him. He started the shiny silver BMW and backed it out of the garage.
“Make we enter town,” he said when he pulled up alongside us. “Ego mmanya don beaucoup.”
Not needing a second invitation, Chuka made it round the car and into the front passenger seat of the BMW in record time. Still reeling from what I’d just seen, I made an excuse about needing to go somewhere, and went home.
Three days later, the police were at our gate. My parents were out of town, so there was no one to stop them loading me into the Black Maria. Before I knew what was happening, I was stripped to my boxer shorts and tossed in a cell with at least eighteen hardened criminals. Already there, with bruises all over his fair skin, was Ezenwa. The house helps had contacted his uncle, who had contacted his father in the US. Ezenwa’s parents had cut short their trip and returned on the next flight to Nigeria. And the first thing his dad did when he got back was to order his son and his ‘criminal’ friends rounded up and locked away. Chuka had somehow heard and absconded to Port Harcourt. Obinna wasn’t on the wanted list; he’d had the good sense to leave before anything actually happened.
We spent just one night in that cell, but it was enough. I had to exchange boxers with the cell Boss, the hardest but ironically also the smallest thug in there. My boxers were fresh and new, his were filthy, smelly, and tattered. They gave me a chronic case of craw-craw, which I still have the faint scars from. The inmates slapped us around a little bit, just to make us feel welcome. Then the Boss told them to leave us alone. They laughed at us, and called us ajebo and nwa mummy.
In the morning my dad came to get me, looking extremely disappointed. He didn’t even have to tell me off. The way he looked at me was enough punishment.
I heard they didn’t come for Ezenwa until the evening. And we never saw him again after that. He wasn’t allowed out, and wasn’t allowed visitors. Six months later we heard he’d been shipped off to America; which we thought was a rather strange punishment for a teenage boy who’d done what he did.
Looking now at the polished, serious, straight-laced, obviously successful Wall Street type standing in front of me, I decided that whatever his parents had done to him, including packing him off to America, they certainly seemed to have got it right.
“How long are you in town?” I asked.
“Till Thursday,” he said. “What time do you finish work?”
“Then we’ll meet by 6pm,” he said, taking down my number. “If they get isi ewu joint for this London, you go sabi am well. I trust you.”
I smiled at that. No matter how much everything changes, some things always remain the same…