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A Felon's Perspective

Saturday, April 1, 1995

It is clear that social-service providers cannot supply all the supervision many ex- cons need to stay out of trouble. Neighbors can help. Lewis, a 29-year-old native of Washington, D.C., has spent a large portion of his life as a professional burglar. Like many current and former criminals, he understands that it is vital to know whether neighbors have criminal pasts. "People got to know," Lewis says. "If you don't know who's living around you, you're trusting everybody. Most of the people that I know, including myself, we want everybody to trust us, because once you get trusted you can do basically anything you want to do."

As a young man, Lewis broke into houses on his own street. Had the neighbors known about his criminal tendencies, he says, "it would have never happened, because they would have been better prepared. You'd be surprised at the people who leave windows open and go to work. Some people are even stupid enough to get drunk around you and leave their keys."

At 17, Lewis was arrested for several burglaries. He was convicted and sent to Lorton prison, outside of Washington, first to the juvenile wing, then to the adult facility. By the time he got out on parole, three years later, he had not been reformed, but he had become considerably wiser: He stopped breaking into his neighbors' houses. "Quite a few neighbors" knew about his burglary convictions, he says. "Basically, it was a `we're going to wait and see' type of thing. I was watched and that discouraged me from anything."

Instead, Lewis says, he looked in other neighborhoods, especially crowded parts of town where neighbors would not recognize him. And he always went on foot. "You never drive a different car to a neighborhood because everybody notices it. If people see that different car, they'll wait `til you get out of it." Lewis estimates he burgled nearly 50 houses before being sent back to prison (on drug-dealing charges, not burglary).

It has been several years since Lewis finished his last term in prison. He is married and lives in Prince George's County, Maryland. He says he has no regular job, but works on and off for a temporary agency. His current neighbors do not know about his burglary convictions, and sometimes Lewis is tempted to steal again. "The urge will hit when I'm broke," he says. "Sometimes when it gets a little tight with money and she starts bitching, you start thinking what you can do for money. And you think, `I could always do what I used to do.' "

Although Lewis has chosen not to tell his neighbors about his criminal past, he does not believe other criminals should have the same choice. "Why not alert people to the fact that you got a known criminal in the neighborhood, you got a burglar living next door to you?" he asks. "The burglar who lives next door to you will get you sooner than you think, especially if you don't know, because he can see you every day, he sees your moves every day."

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