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For witnesses, the choice is truth or jail

Bobby Constantino

Just over a year ago, a teenager that I will call Thomas was on his way to a community center in Dorchester to play basketball with friends. A hooded gunman, mistaking another man for a rival, crossed a busy street and began firing. After the chaos subsided, the gunman fled, leaving a teenager bleeding from a near-fatal gunshot wound.

Last week, Thomas, now a high school senior, was asked to do the unthinkable in a Boston courtroom. Instead of dreaming about prom and life after graduation like the rest of his peers, Thomas had to decide whether to give up everything that is important to him — family, friends, reputation, sports teams, summer job and safety — or go to jail.

As a witness to a shooting, prosecutors subpoenaed Thomas to court. In such cases, the position is that attempted murderers belong in jail; whether to testify is not debatable.

In a former life, as a prosecutor that got to commute out of the high-crime neighborhood where I worked each night, I wholeheartedly endorsed this view. Now, after two years living and working with teenagers in the neighborhood where I prosecuted, I am not so sure. Now that I have observed the reality of what happens up close, taking the stand is probably the last thing young witnesses from violent neighborhoods should be asked to do.

In neighborhoods hit hardest by youth violence, cooperating with law enforcement is the equivalent, in one way or another, of giving up your life. At best, you lose your life as you once knew it; at worst, you lose your life, period.

An example from HBO’s “The Wire” illustrates this. In season four of the critically acclaimed show, a teenager named Randy answered questions about a crime for Baltimore police officers. When word hit the street that he cooperated with law enforcement, he was nearly murdered, his friends stopped talking to him, and peers in a group home wrote “SNITCH BITCH” on his bed and beat him.

While “The Wire” was a fictional drama, it accurately portrays what teenagers in high-crime urban areas go through if they cooperate with police. Two years ago, one of Thomas’s friends, similarly threatened with jail for refusing to play ball, testified about a shooting against his will. As happened in “The Wire,” word got out — it always does — and his community of peers shut him out. The handshakes, the camaraderie, the parties, the sports, the hanging out and talking — all of it was gone. The moment he testified, he found himself on the outside of everything he once knew.

When fearful witnesses do not wish to testify, detectives, prosecutors and judges readily inform them that they will be taken into custody and held in jail. In response to safety concerns, prosecutors typically offer relocation, where witnesses are shipped away from family and friends for safekeeping.

The problem is that placing teenagers in a position where they must either give up their reputations, risk their safety and move away from everything important to them or go to jail leads young witnesses — and the many people in the community that know and care about them — to become even more mistrustful of cooperating with law enforcement. And relocation, while better than nothing, only adds to this: If a witness must leave behind family, friends, jobs, school, sports teams and everything else that’s important to testify, why should he or she speak up in the first place?

Where Thomas lives, at least 20 people — from family friends to aunts, grandparents and other family members — have expressed utter disbelief that the Thomas they love and enjoy being around has been asked to risk so much or go to jail. Not surprisingly, few had anything positive to say about the system afterwards. And they are not alone. With hundreds of shootings in Boston each year, the number of residents that must watch their brothers, sons, nephews, cousins, neighbors and other friends and relatives experience the same fate is only growing.

As police struggle more and more to locate witnesses and clear cases, elected officials and community leaders often find themselves wondering why they must beg for help in the wake of serious crimes. Sadly, there are just too many reasons for those who see something to keep quiet.

Until all of the players in public safety, from municipal officials to federal policymakers, commit to understanding the root causes of the problem — historical, statistical and otherwise — and provide training and resources that will repair the profound and growing breakdown of trust in urban areas, Thomas, and the thousands of young witnesses like him across America, must continue to make an almost impossible decision: truth or jail.

Bobby Constantino, Esq., is a youth pastor with the Quincy Street Missional Church in Dorchester.