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Some juvenile offenders salvageable with a bright future

By PHILIP GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


The juvenile justice system is under assault by politicians who are looking for another cheap way to squeeze political advantage out of the crime issue. Juvenile lawbreakers are being portrayed as monsters, and some of them are. But in dealing with the worst of them, we risk changing the juvenile justice system in ways that will make it more difficult to save those who have the potential to become productive citizens.

Teenagers as young as 13 who commit violent crimes are being charged, tried and sentenced as adults. They are being tossed into adult prisons where they will be raped, abused and hardened before they are released into society once again. It is true that some young people commit horrible, brutal crimes for which they should be punished severely. But the fact is that most young people who encounter the juvenile justice system are salvageable. Given a second chance, they are able to rehabilitate themselves and become contributing members of society.

Yes, young people have an attitude problem, and some of them will be lost despite our best efforts. But we rescue more of them than we lose. The media attention given to some of the most egregious teenage crimes is hardening public attitudes and undermining the basic tenets underlying our juvenile justice system -- rehabilitation, individualized attention and protection from stigmatization.

The perception of juvenile crime is at odds with the crime statistics. According to the U.S. Justice Department, serious teenage crime -- murder, violent deaths, alcohol and drug abuse -- is, like all crime, down. Yet, the public and the politicians view teenage offenders as our most frightening criminal class, and this view is producing zero-tolerance policies in our schools and tougher laws and less tolerance for young lawbreakers in our criminal justice system.

In 23 states, convicted killers as young as 16 and 17 can be executed. Between 1992 and 1995, 41 states amended their juvenile justice laws to make it easier to try juvenile offenders in criminal court and to strip away some of the protections that keep their records confidential. Last year, nearly 18,000 young offenders spent time in adult prisons, 3,500 of them in the general prison population. According to the Justice Department, another 7,000 to 8,000 youth are jailed with adults on any given day.

To commemorate the juvenile court system's centennial, the Justice Policy Institute of the Center of Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Children and Family Justice Center of the Northwestern University School of Law profiled 25 individuals who provide reassuring evidence that young people who get in trouble with the law can reform their lives when given a second chance. From that project came the book Second Chances -- 100 Years of the Children's Court: Giving Kids a Chance to Make a Better Choice.

The latest issue of the U.S. Justice Department's Juvenile Justice Bulletin featured 12 of those profiles. The book focuses on young lawbreakers who went on to become prosecutors, judges, a U.S. senator, probation officers, college professors, poets, authors, stockbrokers, an Olympic athlete and an adviser to the president of the United States.

What they have in common is that in their youth, each was in trouble with the law. But for the services and protections of the juvenile justice system, many of them would have a different story to tell.

Consider some of the success stories:

Claude Brown, 62, a magazine journalist and author of the best-selling book Manchild in the Promised Land overcame a delinquency record that included youthful fights, shoplifting, drug sales and assault. He served time in a New York juvenile detention center and two youth training schools.

Bob Beamon, 52, is the Olympic athlete who set the long-jump record in 1968. He is now president of Bob Beamon Communications Inc. and director of Athletic Development at Florida Atlantic University. As a youth, Beamon had a record of assaults, truancy and running away from home and served time in a detention center.

Scott Filippi, 29, is the sales director of a Mercedes-Benz dealership and a former member of the U.S. Army's presidential honor guard, under President George Bush. Filippi fatally shot a parent who had abused him for years and served 21 months in a rehabilitation and treatment center.

Terence Hallinan, the 63-year-old district attorney of San Francisco, spent time in juvenile detention centers and the Marin County jail for fighting and assault.

Poet, author and journalist Luis Rodriguez, 45, of Chicago went to jail, both as a juvenile and an adult, for shoplifting, burglary, robbery and attempted murder as a gang member.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Reggie B. Walton, 50, is a former federal prosecutor, deputy White House drug "czar" and adviser on crime to former President George Bush. He was adjudicated delinquent three times in juvenile court for fighting as teenager.

Lawrence Wu, 23, is a corporate tax lawyer in New York City and a former editor of the Columbia University Law Review who, as a gang member, was arrested for attempted murder, fighting and other crimes.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., served two years on probation for destruction of federal property (vandalizing mailboxes) and shoplifting as a youth living "on the edge." Today, he is director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

And there is Ronald C. Laney, 53, a former juvenile probation officer in St. Petersburg. Today, he is director of the Child Protection Division, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the U.S. Justice Department. As a teenager, he was found guilty of larceny, disorderly conduct and underage drinking and served time in juvenile detention. He spent almost a year in a state training school in Marianna. He kept getting into trouble with the law until a judge finally gave him the choice between going to jail or joining the military. He decided to join the U.S. Marines, and that made all the difference in his life. "They (the Marines) don't take bad kids like me anymore," he says. "I met a lot of people in the military with similar backgrounds, and we've lost an opportunity to give youth a chance at a different life."

Laney worries about hardening attitudes and the trend toward treating juvenile offenders as adults. "The adult system is a failure at rehabilitation, with high recidivism," he says. "Why would we want to put a troubled kid into a system that doesn't give him a chance to succeed? It doesn't make any sense."

He is right, but tell that to the lawmakers who want to abandon the founding principles of our juvenile court system and treat all criminals, regardless of age, as adult offenders. Some juvenile offenders cannot be deterred from a life of crime, but many can be salvaged if society is willing to give them a second chance.

Simpson put it this way: "Anybody in society, unless they are totally out to lunch, can understand that a guy of 22 or 25 is not the guy of 17."

Simpson must be grateful that his youthful offenses were not judged by today's increasingly harsh laws. The juvenile justice system that is under political attack today is far from perfect, but at least it is founded on the idea that youthful offenders can change if given an opportunity and support. It worked for Alan Simpson, Claude Brown, Bob Beamon, Reggie Walton, Lawrence Wu, Ron Laney and many others who were given a second chance and a helping hand. And it can work for most of today's youthful offenders.

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