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VERY FIRST PERSON

Rage Against the Machine

A Tale of Two Teens Illustrates What Can Go Horribly Wrong, and Sometimes Right, With Our Juvenile Justice System

November 23, 1997|EDWARD HUMES | Edward Humes is the author of "No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court" (Simon & Schuster). His last article for the magazine was on the use of DNA testing in court

I once knew a boy named George. I wanted, more than anything, to save him. Not from flood waters or poverty or disease--tangible threats more easily confronted--but from an icy, incompetent bureaucracy. It was no comfort to know that mine was one in a long line of failures. What matters is that my best efforts fell short, and this sensitive, smart, sweet, troubled boy has to live with the anguish of that failure each day, and so do I. Maybe everyone should.

George was a juvenile delinquent, to use the quaint terminology of a bygone era ("young predators" seems to be the label of choice these days). I met him while researching my book about a year in the life of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, a mammoth place that alternates between the opposing poles of desperation and hope like some giant battery never quite powerful enough to get the job done. George had been in the system since he was 5, when a police officer gently pulled him from a decrepit Dodge van--his home--and took him to a youth shelter. His mother had been arrested for robbery and murder. In my year spent haunting the juvenile courtrooms and detention centers of Los Angeles, I met quite a few kids like him. I watched some--a good many, really--pass successfully through the Juvenile Court, blossoming unexpectedly like flowers in a drought as the system helped them, or at least did them no harm. But too many kids failed: some because they had become irrevocably locked into lives of crime, others because no one, not even those whose job it was to do so, really tried to help. I left Juvenile Court each afternoon feeling what I saw etched on the faces of the better judges, prosecutors and defenders. It was as if we were witnessing an atrocity, and though we had not actively participated in it, we had not stopped it either, like those marginal war criminals who say they only followed orders.

You can't write about a child's life (or death) without it becoming part of your own, and if you can, you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. George's will always be the signature story for me. His fate is emblematic of a juvenile justice system whose failure is as scandalous as it is ignored. His experience is important because it epitomizes everything wrong with a system that grants leniency to the youngest offenders when firmness is desperately needed, then lashes out with the harshest of punishments against older kids. This is the system that made George. And then destroyed him.

When George entered the care of the Juvenile Court as a victim of neglect, he was shunted from one bad foster home to the next, a rootless, angry existence. He was torn from his brother and sister, then heavily medicated for four years after being misdiagnosed as mentally ill. When that was corrected, he flourished as a straight-A student in one group home until he was 12, only to be sent to live with a drug-abusing guardian he despised. When he ran away and committed a minor crime, George was designated, officially, a delinquent. The counseling he had received as a child victim of neglect abruptly ended, though his need for it did not. Instead, he was assigned to a probation officer who had hundreds of kids to supervise, which meant no one supervised George at all--a common enough fate for low-level juvenile offenders. No one held George accountable, no one made sure he went to court, no one forced him to go to school as he moved from his aunt to a foster parent to a group home to the streets. And no one saw to it that he quit committing small crimes--the schoolyard fights, the joy riding in stolen cars for which he was repeatedly arrested, only to be turned loose again. "They never gave me a reason to stop," George once told me. "So I didn't."

When he turned 16, an adult criminal enticed him to help in a home-invasion robbery. Then the juvenile system finally took notice. The robbery failed--the intended victim shot the adult ringleader in the leg--but George was transferred to adult court, as our tough new laws require. While he awaited trial for a year in juvenile hall--the first stable environment he had known in years--he wrote moving poetry, worked as a tutor, won an essay contest sponsored by this newspaper, advanced three grade levels and earned his high school degree.

This is where I met him. He was a thin, watchful boy, his posture as tense as a fist, but he had the soft, slow words of a thinker. He once shared with me his fondest fantasy: He wished for parents who would yell at him. He didn't dream of a mom and dad who would give him presents or take him to Disneyland, but parents who scolded him, set limits for him, who cared enough about him to get mad when he disappointed them. "On the outs, most kids don't know what they've got," he whispered, the longing in his voice so naked it made me wince. "I do."

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