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."
George was sentenced to 12 years in state prison. It was over before anyone at Juvenile Hall knew about it. The judge could have returned George to the juvenile system, but George's lawyer had not presented a case for this: no witnesses from the hall to attest to his fantastic progress and behavior there no information on his poetry, his teaching, his graduation from high school or his work in helping other kids learn to read. Indeed, the probation report written to guide the judge in his sentencing decision asserted that George had been raised by gang members to be a career criminal, when, in fact, he had been raised by the state.
I contacted the judge, the lawyer and the probation department in a series of lengthy letters, explaining these errors of commission and omission. It perhaps was not the action of an unbiased and removed journalist, but the idea of letting George go to prison with the truth untold seemed like letting a child drown without diving into the pool to help. A new hearing was held, but it didn't matter. The judge let the prison sentence stand. He wished George good luck before striding from the bench.
When my book came out last year, criticizing the juvenile justice system for grossly ignoring the young small-timers whom it ought to be turning around, I found myself invited to speak in various places--a state Assembly committee hearing, the Senate chamber in Sacramento, a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Each time was the same: I'd tell my story--George's story, really, and a dozen others like his--and then contrast George's experience to that of a girl I called Carla. A 16-year-old punk when I met her, Carla had a gun in her backpack, a devotion to her gang that made the Marines look like country clubbers, and a likable line of bull that had snowed juvenile judges, probation officers and counselors.
As with George, the juvenile justice system had virtually ignored Carla until she hit the big time--a drive-by shooting and a high-speed police chase. Because the bullets struck nothing but pavement, she remained in Juvenile Court, where a judge placed her in a secure counseling center that combines intensive group therapy with an insistence that kids take responsibility for their actions. Eight months later, she landed on the caseload of an extraordinary probation officer. For the first time in her three years as a delinquent, Carla had someone in her face every day, making sure she kept her nose clean, with the threat of an ugly orange jumpsuit and the cages of Juvenile Hall if she failed. Perhaps most importantly, the Juvenile Court gave Carla time--time to grow up, time to see her gangbanging as tiresome, as a dead end. At 20, Carla's putting herself through college while working as a clerk in a Beverly Hills law firm. She has not been in trouble with the law for nearly three years. "I started to want something else," Carla told me. "Something better. It took a long time for me to realize that, but I finally did."
When I'd describe these kids to committees and officials across the political spectrum, heads would nod in agreement. Help kids and prevent crime was a prescription liberals and conservatives alike could embrace. It was almost surreal, the way everyone at these hearings seemed to agree. They seemed willing at last to abandon the politically popular but absolutely absurd notion that the only way to address juvenile crime is to treat kids like adult felons.
But, in the end, I had failed miserably again. The same committees and politicians, having given lip service to saving kids, crafted some of the most draconian legislation ever conceived for dealing with youth crime. Congress is pushing bills that would require states to try more and younger kids as adults or face drastic budget cuts. Not that California needs a shove: Gov. Pete Wilson wants to execute 14-year-olds. The notion that children deserve better, simply by virtue of being children, is considered quaint and hopelessly outdated.
If these proposed laws were in effect, Carla would be in prison now. Meanwhile, the boy named George I wanted to save is gone. He's a man now, the courts have said so, and they have sent him to the tender ministrations of the Department of Corrections, along with 150,000 other adult criminals. He will be in his mid-20s when he gets out. This is supposed to make our streets safer. But George will be somebody's neighbor one day, and I find myself haunted by his words to me, as true now as they were before: "They never gave me a reason to stop."