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Carjackings Are On The Rise. What Drives Youth To Commit These Crimes?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The stories are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying. In December in Chicago, a retired firefighter died after an attempted carjacking that led to a shootout. One of those arrested was just 15 years old. In Washington, D.C., in March, an Uber Eats driver on a delivery near the city's baseball stadium died after a struggle with two girls trying to take his car. The two girls, who have both accepted responsibility, were 13 and 15.

Those are just two of the terrible incidents making headlines in cities across the country. NPR has reported that the FBI doesn't keep national data on carjackings, but many cities do. And the numbers are exploding. In Minneapolis, for example, there were 405 carjackings last year, more than triple the number in 2019. But what's equally disturbing are the ages of the people involved, some as young as 12 or 13 or a mixture of teenagers and young adults.

What we wanted to understand is, why? What's driving some young people to participate in this dangerous and potentially deadly behavior? So we tried to find someone who's done it. And that's how we found Jonas Gilham. He was incarcerated at 16 for that and robbery and first-degree sexual abuse. And I want to let you know now that the details of that are disturbing and will be discussed. He was released last year after serving a 17-year sentence under a program that allows people given long sentences as juveniles to get a second look.

Gilham is now the creator and facilitator of Healthy Masculinity Group within the Young Men Emerging Unit at the D.C. Department of Corrections. He's also a production assistant for Unchained Stories. That's a social impact production company and media consulting firm. And he's with us now. Mr. Gilham, thanks so much for talking with us.

JONAS GILHAM: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you see these stories, as I know you do, you know, on the news about teenagers participating in this kind of behavior, something that you once did, what goes through your mind?

GILHAM: I just be thinking, like, I mean, some things just don't change because of so many factors. After serving 17 and a half years and returning to my community, I see that it's still the same. So it doesn't surprise me that, you know, crime rates and carjacking rates are the same or rising because the conditions are still the same.

MARTIN: Well, how did it start for you? I mean, you don't just wake up in the morning - or maybe you do. Do we wake up in the morning and say, I'm going to go take somebody's car today or break into somebody's house today? I mean, how does...

GILHAM: Nah.

MARTIN: ...It start?

GILHAM: Nah. It normally starts by trying to fit in because of - a lot of the times, the type of environment because for me, that's what it was. It was my environment. So when I go outside every day, as soon as I walk out my front door, I'm entering a war zone. And everything is going on from sunup to sundown - robberies and murders and carjacking and extortion and all of these things. And I was subject to those things very, very early on. And I quickly became a product of my environment.

MARTIN: But how did it start? Like, how does it occur to you? Does somebody say, let's go get that car? Or like, what - do you see a car, and you just think, OK, I'm going to take it? Or how does it start?

GILHAM: So, for - like, kids want to joyride. So, like, a lot of times, kids are stealing cars or jacking cars just to have them, honestly. And then sometimes, they jacking cars because they need money. And they feel like this is a quick, fast way to get some money - jack this car, take it to the chop shop or take it to somebody and sell parts off the car and whatever. So then it becomes a financial thing.

MARTIN: I can't gloss past the details of what particularly - what caused you to be incarcerated, which is that you and another man raped a woman in her house. It was after a home invasion. And you - as I understand it, from reading the record of the time, that you followed them into the house. You broke into the house. And then they didn't have a lot of money, and then you took turns raping the woman. Is that true?

GILHAM: Wow. Yes. That is true.

MARTIN: And I'd like to ask, like, why? I mean, what - why? Did - what was that about?

GILHAM: I was a misled, unsupervised child and growing up in an environment that turned me into something that I was never supposed to be - doing drugs, smoking PCP, being raised by dudes who do nothing but rob, kill and sell drugs. I picked up all of the wrong belief systems and habits, and that's what brought me to that point.

MARTIN: Is it - do you feel - I guess, what would make a difference? And one of the reasons I bring that up in case - the fact is it is - it did happen. And I want to respect the people that this happened to because they are still living with it just like you're still living with it. So I want to show respect for their experience as well as your experience.

GILHAM: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But I also want to know, like, how do you unwind that? Like, if - you obviously had remorse. I mean, at the time - I remember during your sentencing that it was recorded at the time, you were very - you were sobbing. And you said at the time that you knew it was wrong. And you said at the time that you were very sorry. But how do you unwind that? Do you have some ideas of that? Like, if you get to a point where as a teenager, then you're willing to confront somebody with a weapon and take their car from them, realizing that somebody could get hurt or die, how do you change yourself - I guess would be the question - so that you don't want to do that anymore?

GILHAM: Honestly, I believe that, like, to a large degree, like, a lot of people in my community be in desperation, you know, and - for whatever real or imagined reasons those may be. But it's access to just basic needs, like, I think would change - because I don't think people just go out. I think after a while it becomes, like - for some people, like, just - they just angry. And we know hurt people hurt people, you know what I mean? And it comes from that base sometimes.

But other times, it's just - it's a money grab. It's just people want to get some money to be able to afford to do the things that they need to do. So I think just, like, the way that we're moving now as a society, like, calling for the prison abolishment and just a whole transformative justice movement I think will have good results whether I'm here to see it or not.

MARTIN: Jonas Gilham is a poet, an author and a production assistant with Unchanged Stories. He was incarcerated as a teen, and he served a 17-year sentence. Mr. Gilham, thanks so much for talking to us.

GILHAM: Thank you. You have a good one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.