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Shock Therapy

Ed Humes' profile of juvenile justice in L.A. reveals startling conditions. His work has stirred people to volunteer, seek reform and, above all, save our kids.

May 02, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you don't look too hard, you can avoid seeing them. If you don't listen too closely, you can avoid hearing them.

Even, it seems, when they shout.

The juvenile delinquent has been, with good intentions, cloaked in secrecy--no names, please--and shuffled into a junior court system that instead of turning lives around, succeeds too often in propelling them more deeply into crime.

In California, 257,829 kids were arrested in 1994 for felonies, misdemeanors and status offenses such as truancy and curfew violations. In Los Angeles County, home to the busiest juvenile court system in the nation, 51,507 were arrested.

When writer Ed Humes of Seal Beach took a hard, yearlong, independent look at what happens to kids in juvenile court in Los Angeles County, he found a dysfunctional system "in dire need of attention."

His book on his experience, "No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court" (Simon & Schuster, 1996), has prompted a number of people to stop and do some looking and listening.

The book tells the stories of a handful of kids passing through the court system. It has garnered rave reviews and been optioned for motion picture and TV series development by MTV Films and Paramount.

"It's an extraordinary book," said Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway), chairman of the state Assembly's juvenile justice subcommittee, who invited Humes to speak at a recent subcommittee hearing in Los Angeles. The subcommittee is listening to testimony on juvenile justice reform legislation in Sacramento.

"I think anyone interested in our criminal justice system, and juvenile issues in particular, ought to be reading it," Goldsmith said. "It really points out the reason why we need to focus on reforming the juvenile justice system as our No. 1 public safety issue."

Humes, who has been making the rounds of local and national television and radio talk shows, has been surprised by the number of listeners who have called in asking where they can volunteer to help kids who are in trouble.

"That was the most gratifying response of all, that ordinary individuals would feel moved to want to pitch in and do something," said Humes, 38, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former newspaper reporter who has written three other books.

"No Matter How Loud I Shout," he said, is striking a chord in California and elsewhere for several reasons.

"There is fear we have of the violence we're seeing now in some of our children: We're becoming a nation afraid of our children," he said. "That's why we're trying so many as adults now. But when people hear a discussion of delinquents in terms not demonizing kids but perhaps humanizing them, that sparks their interest too. It gives them a way to look at--and maybe get a handle on--this fear and [realize] maybe something can be done to help the kids."

If there's a basic message in the book, Humes said, "it's that the problem of juvenile delinquency, by and large, is not an unsolvable one. It's possible to fix the system, save our kids and protect ourselves all at the same time."

The fix, he believes, can't come too soon.

Juvenile crime has tripled over the past 35 years, with juvenile murder rates more than doubled since 1985. By the year 2010, the U.S. Justice Department predicts, the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes will double again. And the number arrested for murder will increase an estimated 150%.

Although Humes focuses on Los Angeles Juvenile Court, he said what's happening in Los Angeles "really is illustrative of what's going on elsewhere in the country with juvenile crime and juvenile court, and California is on the verge of totally changing how it deals with juveniles."

Sixty bills dealing with juvenile justice reform are pending in the state Legislature, ranging from minor tinkering to sweeping reforms.

"The main focus of debate is, how can we try more kids as adults?" Humes said. "The number of kids who commit murder under 15 is a fraction of all juvenile delinquents." Yet, he said, "we let that fraction drive the debate."

Instead, he said, the debate should be about the thousands of kids who can be saved.

"We should act meaningfully at the beginning of the process, when they're entering the system as truants, car thieves and young kids on the verge of becoming career criminals."

Goldsmith agrees.

"There is no question the front end is where the key breakdown in the system is," he said. "Offenders go through the system, and it almost lulls them into a sense of security, that it's OK to commit a crime."

What's needed, he said, is "personal attention, intervention and consequences for the act at a very early stage. When there is none, the wrong message goes out."

One way Humes sees to improve the system without spending a lot of money is to decentralize probation departments: Put probation officers in schools, where they can keep a closer eye on their charges.

Changing the way juvenile court does business is another way.

The court, he believes, should be operated like a "legal ER."

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