True Life: Dead Broke

I found myself in the midst of a MTV: True Life marathon yesterday. You know what that means: A Saturday wasted.

No, seriously, I only watched two episodes.

One was True Life: I'm Dead Broke.

(If you don't know what True Life is, it's basically a documentary that follows some 18-24 year old through a few weeks dealing with some aspect of their life. Episode Guide here.)

Anyway, the "I'm Dead Broke" episode followed three young people, in three different parts of the country (Illinois, Missouri, and California), who are having trouble making ends meet.

The girl from Missouri I had the least sympathy for. Basically, she said she dropped out of school, and went to another state, so she could work for a year so that she could afford to buy a car so that she could go back to school - under the rationale that she couldn't go to school without a car, because she wouldn't be able to get to an afterschool job. And the reason why she had to go to another state was because there wasn't any work in her hometown, and she didn't want to be a burden on her single mother. So, she was waitressing at some weird restaurant (it looked like lawn furniture indoors, very "homestyle") and kept whining about how she needed money so she could go back to school (free public school, mind you), and some people were letting her stay at their house for free, and they kept showing her smoking, which bugged me because I just thought, "If you're *that* broke, you can give up your very expensive habit." Then, she got fired from her waitressing job for having marijuana at the restaurant one night when she went there to play pool. I'm just saying that if she was that desperate for money, she could go without weed. And I was just suspicious that maybe she left her hometown for other reasons (drug problems? arrests?) and, personally, I don't have a problem with that either, but I thought that if she was going to put herself out there to be in a documentary, she should 'fess up to that too.

The next girl from California, I related to a little bit more. She was saying that she "hustles" to make ends meet, mostly braiding hair (without a cosmetology license.) I wonder how much it would cost her just to get her a cosmetology license and whether she could make better money working out of some kind of salon or barbershop. She did 'fess up to past arrests involving forgery or credit card fraud, but seemed to to be trying to do her best to make ends meet for her and her boyfriend in a legitimate way (if we ignore the cosmetology license issue). She and her boyfriend were getting kicked out of their apartment because their landlord sold it, and struggling to find a new place with the little bit of money they had. I can respect that, but I certainly don't think that she was as bad off as many young people I meet in my practice.

And, finally, there was a young man named DeMarlon. This is the one that really made me sad and will probably stay with me the most. He lived in this dilapidated house, without running water, with his family. He was shown pumping water for the house and cooking a meal for his family. He went to work with his father. At night, he was home reading to his younger siblings. Although he graduated from high school, he said, his reading wasn't too good. (How you can graduate from high school and still not read is another issue.) He was forthcoming about the fact that he had been arrested for stealing a car, and then he had done it because he had seen friends who lived that life who had nice cars and new clothes, and he had decided to do the same. Unfortunately, it didn't work out, and he spent two month in jail and was now on probation. He seemed truly contrite about his crime, and his arrest, and very committed to staying home with his family and becoming a hardworker and a person of God. He sets out to walk the 18 miles to his monthly probation appointment and worries about it ahead of time, because he knows how important it is to be at his appointment and to be there on time.

DeMarlon has decided that he wants to join the armed forces. He feels that it's his only way out of poverty, it'd be one less mouth for his family to feed, and that he'd be able to help support his family. He feels that it's his best shot at bettering himself for the future. I think it's unfortunate that he feels that he has so few choices, but I think that this is a really smart decision that he's made. One of the obstacles standing in DeMarlon's way is the ASVAB and he makes his way to a literacy program and to the library to get review books and take a practice test.

And here's the public defender point I've been tying to get to. DeMarlon finally learns that he can't even take the ASVAB until he's done with probation in two years. And, I just wanted to ask all of the other criminal defense attorneys out there - don't you think they would have terminated probation for him so that he could go into the military?

I've never had a client do it, but I've seen other people's clients come into court with a military recruiter. The recruiter goes on the record, stating that whatever military branch is prepared to enlist him but the only thing standing in his way is the probation. And then the judge just terminates the probation favorably. And it makes sense. If the point of probation is supervision, he'll be well supervised in the military. If the point of probation is to keep you out of trouble, he's much more likely to stay out of trouble in the military than he is going to meet his P.O. once a month. Especially now, my understanding is that enlistment is at an all-time low, you'd think they'd find some way to work around these circumstances. Another option would be for the probation to be somehow "transferred" to the military, the same way you can transfer probation from one state to another, with the idea that then the military would be responsible for his supervision, rather than the state.

(I was also under the impression that if the recruiters wanted you enough they'd work with you to pass the ASVAB, but maybe that's not true either?)

Poor me, I was so upset about this poor kid. The boyfriend said, "You're not going to try to send him money now, are you?" It crossed my mind. But more importantly, I hope that my clients know they can and should call me when this kind of thing comes up, that I might be able to help.

I just wonder if the kid never tried to talk to his lawyer, or his P.O. or his recruiter about this. Because, do all the other lawyers out there agree with me, there would probably be a way for him to work around the probation so he could enlist? I know at least one of you is a military veteran and lawyer (and another future lawyer) - do you have anything to add?


  1. I too was watching the True Life marathon, due to outline procrastination (it was amazingly effective.) The last kid's story broke my heart. He really did seem like he was trying to get his act together and was really doing his best. I don't know too much about criminal defense, but I think it's ridiculous that they don't let people on parole (particularly for non-violent offenses) join the armed forces. I know a lot of kids who were 'troubled' from high school, etc., and joining the army/navy/marines straightened them out more than anything else. I agree that the supervision they'd receive would be so far superior to parole supervision, plus they'd be learning responsibility, earning $ for their families, etc.
    Can we write an email to MTV or something to let him know that he has some options?

  2. I watched that same episode yesterday, but turned it off during that one's man story. My thinking: I deal with this enough at work, I want TV to take my mind off the realities of the world.

    I'm weak.

  3. I haven't tried to get someone in the military for a couple years but the last ime I did the military wanted absolutely nothing to do with anyone with a felony conviction (like car theft). They weren't too thrilled about misdemeanors but if it didn't involve drugs you could get them in if they were in no way under probation or a suspended sentence.

    Once upon a time the military would take people who were given the option to serve time in the military or serve time in prison. Now they will absolutley refuse anyone trying to enlist in this manner. The last felony client I had who wanted to enlist had to get all the charges dismissed before trial in order to enlist. The recruiter came and showed the court that everything was prepared. Client had taken the ASVAB and the contract was ready to sign. The prosecutor, judge, and I worked it out so a number of charges got nolle prosequi'ed to allow enlistment.

    Then Client got lost somewhere between the courthouse and recruitment office and never enlisted. This led to further proceedings which did not go particularly well.

  4. I've had a lot of trouble getting people into the military when they have forgery/fraud issues and drugs. Those will definitely effect their security clearances as well. But I've also never had a problem with a probation officer and/or judge agreeing to terminate early when someone has successfully enlisted.

  5. What Ken Lammers says is absolutely true - the military (or at least the Air Force, which is the only branch I have experience with) isn't all that interested in people with criminal backgrounds.

    I know I had a Master Sergeant or two who mentioned that he came in that way - 15-20 years ago. But I think the prevailing thought is that if people are going to get themselves in trouble on the outside, it isn't really going to go much better for them in the military either.

    Although enlistment may be down now, keep in mind that the overall numbers of military personnel have been dramatically reduced from 20 years ago as well, so the services can afford to be a bit more selective. The mind set has more or less shifted to "the military is NOT a social services agency". And as Melissa points out - certain crimes in a person's background will definitely affect a security clearance - which almost everyone needs.

    I agree that the military is a great way for some kids to straighten out. But let me tell you from first-hand experience - it doesn't work for everyone, and it's really a drain on your resources when you've got someone who just won't fly straight. I can't tell you the number of hours I invested in the one or two airmen who probably shouldn't have made it past the recruiter's front door.

  6. Interesting.

    Maybe my information is outdated - from the stories I hear from my father and his army buddies (who were in the army in the Vietnam era - late 60s and early 70s), it sounds like in the old era the approach was more toward "Get in trouble one more time, and we'll have to ship you off into the military."

    It seems like back then, a lot of people saw it as a more productive alternative to jail.

  7. Actually, I said that I was ready to send the kid some money to help him out.
    I've heard of stories where, due to recruitment levels, if they want you, they will get you in....
    the Boyfriend

  8. FYI, Here's the Army FAQ on enlisting with a felony record:

    This also includes a list of what felonies can and cannot be "waived." May be worth printing for clients who are interested in the military. (At this point, I haven't had many.)

  9. What branch of the military was he trying to get into? I think it's only the Army that's having trouble meeting its goals. The others are turning people away.

    If he were in a lot more trouble, he might try to join the French Foreign Legion, but that's probably overkill in his case.

  10. I didn't watch this (no cable) but what bothers me is that the three people they depicted who are having trouble making ends meet are all struggling in part because of their own stupidity, or poor previous choices. This just bolsters the view of so many people in this country that if you're poor, it's becuase you've done something to deserve it.

    I work with low income and immigrant workers and the vast majority of people I see are just the kind of hard working folks that are supposed to succeed in the US. But they don't, because the root cause of poverty in most cases isn't dumb choices - it's the whole damn system. And (again, I didn't see the show but I'm making a guess based on the depth of other similar MTV shows I have seen) I doubt that MTV made one very important point - it's not that these people are poor because they've made bad decisions. These people often make bad decisions because their poverty makes them feel they have no way out.

    Anyway, I guess this comment isn't in line with what you were asking, but I got irritated by a show I didn't even see and wanted to mouth off a little.

    - frm

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with LQ. I too was in the Air Force where my entire job was health/morale/welfare/discipline of the troops, and I can tell you, we didn't need or want anyone who was ALREADY in trouble. I think the whole "go in the military to get out of legal trouble" thing is pretty dated, and even back in the day, I think it was mainly the Army and Marines that did that. And, as one commenter pointed out, the Army is (I think) the only branch have serious troubles meeting their recruiting goals. I do feel bad for that kid because I think for many, many people in this country, the military has been a great way to achieve all of the things he's looking to do and I know that many of the people who worked for/with me in the AF came from some really dire circumstances and had used the benefits of the military to turn their lives around...I myself am using the GI Bill to go to law school!

  12. The recruiter's I've talked to about my clients (and they are always friendly and helpful), were quick to say that they are absolutely barred from making or participating in any kind of on the record deal (i.e. guy signs up in the military in exchange for dismissal of charges). The military doesn't want to touch that with a ten foot pole. They are glad to say, "but for this charge, he meets the other requirements." But they won't accept someone if it's a condition of their sentance. Nor will they make any guarantees about taking a defendant into the service.

    SC Public Defender

  13. You no longer need a cosmetology license to do hair braiding in CA, thanks to these nice folk.

  14. you cant get into the military if at any point in time, your joining of the military shows favorable to your sentence going away.
    i tried for a long time, different circumstances. but if the judge says "boy join the army and you get no probation"
    it sucks,
    i paid $4000.00 to get lasik and now can see better than 20/20 adn i cant join due to my eyesight prior to said surgery.
    it seems messed up with this war we are in. that i spent my own money, and now the armed services are GIVING the surgery to enlisted soldiers.
    when you are in you are in, and if you are out you are f****d

  15. Believe it or not, I have this problem with a DUI client and the Peace Corps. They apparently require a criminal case to be closed for six months before someone can 'enlist' or whatever the Peace Corps does. Trying to figure that one out right now. Prosecutors always want probation on DUIs...

  16. Does anyone know what happened to DeMarlon? I just saw this special last night and it broke my heart. I put a blog together to try and track down and help DeMarlon

  17. Here's the blog

  18. I don't know about all this "not being allowed into the military with a record" stuff, because right as that show was aired my ex boyfriend and his two roomates had their house searched and were arrested for various drug related charges. One of them was sentenced to jail time, but while in jail, he was offered something called "Shot camp." Basically, you sere part of your sentence at a boot camp facilty and should the miltary need you after you have completed your boot camp training, they can have you. If they don't, you get probabtion/parole. The guy was also offered the option of choosing to join the miltary afterwards, if he wanted. Instead he opted for two years parole and moved in with his parents. His charges were for possessing oxy-cotin, a scale, a few bags of weed, and three small marijauna plants. The miltary still wanted him. However, we do live in NY, so possibly the laws are different.

  19. Just came across this blog after doing some googling around.

    How sad for DeMarion. One website has some information on him:

    I was googling around to find information for those who have been on the wrong side of the law. I am one of those people. In 2000, I hit rock bottom. I had just delivered my second baby to die at birth, with an abusive boyfriend and well, the list can go on and none of it matters because it is not an excuse. I just didn't care anymore. I became involved in Credit Card fraud with my then boyfriend. I went to jail, received a felony and while in jail tried to make heads or tails out of my life. I was released from jail after 4 months and was placed on 3 years probation. I was determined to get my life back on the right path. I had to bend over backwards for my probation officers, I did my community service, I had a job working in a call center within a week of my release and busted my tail end off to prove myself. I fell in love again and had another baby, I went back to college and in 2004, my beautiful daughter suffered a severe head injury. She is now brain damaged and physically disabled. Throough the hospitalization, my probation officer had me released from probation because I had met all the requirements and the only thing I owed the state was one more year on probation.

    Fast forward 4 years, I am still working on my education, I am still employed, I am taking great care of my daughter and still haven't gone back to the life of crime. I am working on my degrees in social work, sociology and psychology. My goal is to work with those trying to get back on track. I know that not everybody wants to be helped, but there are those who need to see the face of somebody who has been there and is doing good. I used to have counselors talk to me and I would wonder "How can they even know? They have a clean background!"

    At least I can say I have been there and I have come up ahead and still beating all the odds. It's a hard battle to fight but it's not unbeatable.

    This was just to share with those of you who are in Defense, Probation, Corrections, etc. that read this to know that not to give up hope on mankind.

  20. I Went to high school with the girl who lived in Missouri and all I have to say is she made her bed and now she has to lay in it. She was offered help by some of her friends and refused because she wanted to go to Missouri. There was plenty of work I had a full time job in high school and made it by just fine. As far as her growing up she didn't have much family support but a lot of us don't and go on to lead very successful lives. Life is what YOU make it. She made her choices.