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Too young to run out of options

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 19, 2002

He should have known better.

He should have known better than to point his finger at a convenience store clerk and demand the money out of the cash register.

He should have known better than to try to steal a bicycle to ride home. He should have known better than to raise a stick threateningly when the bike's owner tried to stop him.

He should have known better. But he didn't.

In the three years between the convenience store episode and the bicycle theft, he should have known better than to make all the other choices, more dumb than malicious, that branded him a career criminal. But he didn't.

So last week, as he sat in a Pinellas County courtroom, he had run out of choices. His only option was to sit there and wait for Judge Frank Quesada to sentence him. As he sat alone in the jury box waiting for the judge to dispense with other court business, he tried to disappear. He slunk down in his seat and covered most of his face with his jacket.

But the scene wouldn't go away. When he peeked out from the cover of the jacket, he was still in a courtroom waiting for a judge to sentence him to hard time.

The judge had run out of options, too. With juvenile offenders, once the course of programs and alternatives is run and the offenses continue, you are eventually left with Level 8 detention, reserved for the worst cases. One lawyer described Level 8 as maximum security prison for juveniles.

Between the convenience store and bicycle incidents, the defendant before Quesada had gone from a 7-year-old who should have known better to a 10-year-old who still didn't.

As he faced the judge alone, the way too many children do, the clues to why were obvious. His mother could have told him better if she knew or even knew where to find him -- or the four other children by about as many fathers.

His father could have told him, but not in the few minutes of their last conversation 11 months ago.

His 12-year-old brother possibly could have told him, but he was too intent on convincing his younger brother to join him in selling drugs, an offer the child refused. "That's you," the younger brother told him. "I'm not going to do that," he said, showing a rare, positive sign of a value system.

So he sat in a big courtroom waiting for the judge to take away his power to choose for the next 18 months and place it in the hands of detention workers. Under his jacket, he cried.

Some would say that he was exactly where he deserved to be, headed to the best place for him and the rest of society, especially the rest of society. We have lost the little patience we had with rehabilitation. We just want criminals weeded out of our midst, even if they are only 10 years old. They only grow bigger and stronger and more dangerous, the thinking goes.

If we resign ourselves to building detention facilities at the same pace parents are giving birth to children they abandon psychologically if not physically, then longer sentences for 10-year-olds might be the answer. If we lock them up until they reach retirement age, then we might have made our streets safer.

If we are willing to conclude that 10-year-old criminals, once grown up, will never become contributors to our well-being, then why bother to consider age? Why not throw the keys away on an 8-year-old? If a 2-year-old repeatedly takes toys from other children, why not throw him into detention day care, too? Don't wait until he's old enough to point a finger and say, "Give me your money."

But if you believe that with proper guidance most children, even those who become career criminals by age 10, can grow into lives that are productive, then you search beyond detention walls for answers.

Fortunately for the boy hiding under his jacket, someone was in court that day who thought he deserved a chance. Not a second chance, but a fair chance, the one chance his home life hadn't given him.

So Darryl Rouson gave the judge an option to consider beside Level 8 detention. Rouson told the judge he would take custody of the boy for a probationary period. Rouson, a lawyer and president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, was granted permission pending the mother's approval, which she eventually gave, reluctantly.

The boy went home with Rouson and, if he avoids trouble for three months, he can return to his family.

It was a bold move for Rouson, who said he and his wife prayed over the decision, but he has become well-known for bold moves. To discourage stores from selling crack smoking paraphernalia, he went into several stores and removed it from counters and shelves. To discourage hotels from catering to prostitutes and drug sellers and users, he filed suit on behalf of an addict. His quickness to act has brought criticism from some, including members of the NAACP branch he leads, and admiration from others.

Sitting in Rouson's St. Petersburg office, the young offender strikes a much different pose than he did days earlier in the courtroom. His answers are confident and swift. His eyes don't peer from behind a jacket or turn downward in shame or fear. He says "yes, sir" and "no, sir," sometimes having to correct himself to do so. He looks like any little boy visiting his father's job.

"I'm not going to mess up," he says confidently as he discusses the length of probation.

He defends as self-defense his decision to pick up the stick in the bicycle incident. "They were going to beat me up." He says he didn't swing it or raise it aggressively.

The point seems important to him, more important than the notion that taking the bicycle was the catalyst for everything that followed. The integrity of other people's property apparently is one of the lessons Rouson will have to teach.

Rouson is convinced the boy is bright enough, even impressed with his grasp of the precarious point his life has reached.

It is not often that a child caught in the web of poor parenting, negative peer pressure and the law is snatched from jail doors and invited to live with a lawyer. Usually, the doors close behind him -- and in front of him -- and we all lose.

Rouson's bold move is to be applauded and, to the degree possible, copied.

Every child deserves a fair chance, no matter how unfairly his parents were assigned.

Every child needs to know better.

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