Dave was 14 years old when he and some friends got drunk and decided to rob a man in an alley near the boy’s Pacoima home one spring night in 1987. As he recalls it, he took part in beating the man, and then another friend stabbed the man to death.
Dave, who was found guilty of second-degree murder, doesn’t remember feeling a great deal of guilt or remorse at the time. It was just the kind of thing you did running with your home boys, he said.
But now hear him talk.
“I have thought about it and placed myself in my victim’s place and tried to feel what he felt,” said Dave, now 17 and serving a 15-year-to-life sentence at the California Youth Authority’s Fred C. Nelles School in Whittier. “I’ve imagined my family as victims. When I get out, I don’t think I’ll be involved in crime anymore.”
Dave is a recent graduate of a pioneering California Youth Authority course that officials hope will teach youthful offenders to empathize with their victims and feel remorse for their crimes.
“Most of these guys are very oblivious to what the effect of their crime is on other people,” said Sharon English, assistant deputy director for parole services for the CYA, the first youth correctional agency in the United States to offer the course.
“This course is really about values and other people’s rights and personalizing crime,” English said. “Teaching them to read, write and weld is easy. In this course, you teach them how to feel.”
Since it began in 1985, the CYA course has had inquiries from youth correctional agencies in 34 states and Canada, many of which instituted similar programs based on the California effort, English said.
A high-security complex of red brick buildings, Nelles houses 835 male juvenile offenders aged 13 to 20 who committed crimes ranging from petty theft to murder, said the school’s program administrator, James Welke.
Each youth attends the class every weekday for six weeks. The course culminates in a candlelight graduation ceremony to which friends and relatives are invited.
The class features a series of guest speakers who describe in detail the suffering they have undergone as a result of such crimes as rape, child abuse, drunk driving, homicide and robbery.
Typical speakers might include a counselor from a rape crisis center--or even a rape victim, if one is available and willing to talk--describing the lingering trauma a sexual assault causes. A person whose home has been burglarized might tell the class what it is like to lose an irreplaceable family heirloom.
Youths have heard a man paralyzed in a crash caused by a drunk driver describe how difficult it is to perform life’s daily routines, how even going to the bathroom has become an ordeal, how people stare at him and how he has contemplated suicide because of his suffering.
Shelly Wood, who taught the class attended by Dave, likes to tell students that what they think of as innocuous crimes can have an unforeseen “domino effect.” For instance, an auto theft victim can lose his job because he has no transportation to work. His children may go hungry as a result.
“A delinquent who knocks a lady down and steals her purse is only thinking about the money,” English said. Teachers try to make the youths realize that the woman may now be unable to pay her rent, may be hobbled by slow-to-heal injuries and might remain fearful for the rest of her life.
On one recent occasion, Fern Stamps, 49, a frequent guest speaker, told the class what it is like to have had a son murdered.
Gauging the effectiveness of the course is difficult. CYA officials are working to develop a method of measuring the recidivism rate in youths who have taken the class. For now, attitude surveys taken by youths before and after taking the class show greater sympathy for victims, English said.
Teachers believe that they are getting through to some youths. A former drug dealer, for instance, told Wood that he spent a sleepless night after she told the class that drug dealers are responsible for drug-addicted and deformed babies born to drug-using mothers.
But other results are less clear-cut. Jason, 18, of Pacoima, who listened to Stamps speak, didn’t seem very convinced when Wood told him that he would be morally responsible if anyone were killed with guns he sold. Jason was sentenced to the CYA for stealing 15 crates of automatic weapons from a San Pedro military base and selling them for $7,000 per crate.
Wood asked him how he would feel if the man that killed Stamps’ son had bought the gun from him.
“He didn’t,” Jason shrugged.
“But it probably was used to kill someone similar,” Wood replied.
“I sold the gun. I didn’t kill anyone.”
“What do people buy guns for but to kill?” Wood asked.
“That’s not my problem. I sold guns for my purpose--it made money. If you had a chance to make $21,000 in a day, wouldn’t you do it?”