Destructive Justice: A Lost Boy, A Broken System, and the Small Light of Hope (2014) by Nicholas Frank is a book in which you know the story before you even begin. A quick glance at the back cover tells you the essential plot line-teenager from a good family goes off the rails and into drugs and gangs, participates in a botched robbery at 17, and lands himself in prison with consecutive life sentences. It is a bleak picture, filled with the failures of our justice system on multiple levels. However, Destructive Justice is not a bleak book. It is ultimately a loving father’s portrayal of his son.
Nicholas Frank begins the book with the birth of his son Nathan and a description of his early childhood. Frank depicts Nathan as a vibrant kid with a great sense of humor, keen intelligence, and a sense of curiosity about the world around him. Yet Frank is also honest about the difficulties of Nathan’s childhood, most of which stemmed from an ugly divorce and an even uglier custody battle that raged on for several years.
The chapters depicting Nathan’s gradual descent in early adolescence are some of the most difficult pages in the book to read. Although the reader already knows the outcome, the continual poor choices that Nathan makes are devastating. Again and again, Nathan chooses the wrong path, and again and again, his father attempts to reroute his course. Frank helps Nathan kick his drug habit, only to have him start using again; gets him back in school, only to have him drop out; enrolls him in a rehabilitation program, only to have him refuse to attend; and finally, bails him out of jail, only to have him land there, once, and perhaps, for all.
Yet these early chapters are also filled with snippets of wisdom from experts in the psychology of adolescents, experts who confirm that adolescents do not assess the risks and consequences of their behavior the way that adults do, and that adolescents’ brains react to the presence of peers and attention like an insect to light.
Unfortunately, as is clear from the chapters describing Nathan’s experience in the court system, many leaders in our country do not understand these key differences between adolescence and adulthood. Though he was only 17 and without a criminal record when he committed the armed robbery, Nathan was transferred from juvenile court to adult court. From there it was a tragedy of errors–poor decisions by the defense attorney, Nathan’s failure to accept plea deals, questionable statutory interpretation, and the judge’s ultimate discretion in sentencing–that landed Nathan, at 18, with two life sentences.
The story could have ended here, but it doesn’t, and I’m glad, because the final chapters were some of my favorite in the book. They show the reality of Nathan’s life in prison, and the violence he suffered as a result of his former gang affiliation and his simple attempts to stand up for himself. It is also during this time in prison that Frank, and you, the reader, begin to see a transformation in Nathan. Through letters from Nathan, his unlikely inmate friend, and even prison guards, we learn that “[i]n one of the worst place on earth, [Nathan] has found the best parts of himself.”
The final chapters provide an update on the law concerning prisoners sentenced to life without parole for non-violent crimes committed under the age of 18. Nathan is still in prison, and may be for many more years. However, Frank’s final message is one of hope, both for his son, and for his readers that may work to change the system. This book could appeal to a wide array of audiences-law students, practicing prosecutors and defense attorneys, child advocates, social workers, parents of teenagers, teenagers, and anyone who would appreciate a story of redemption.