ERIC ANDELL, THE JUDGE OF A JUVENILE court in Houston, peered down from the bench at the small cluster of people before him. In the center stood a lean sixteen-year-old boy in blue jeans and a light-green jersey with a hood. He and a friend had stolen a car to go joyriding. Most juvenile offenders have fallen behind in school, and he was no exception, but few arrive in court accompanied by such strong family support. His mother and father, a stepfather, and two sets of grandparents were there before the bench with him. Close by, but off to the side, was the man whose car he had stolen. Judge Andell could not resist a moment and an audience like this. Gesturing toward the victim, Andell said to the boy, “The man behind you is going to have a lot to say, so your credibility is at stake. If I sense you are not telling the truth, you’re going straight to jail.” He paused for a moment, then asked, “Did you steal a car?”
“Yes,” the boy said, almost inaudibly.
“How did you get in?”
“Broke a window.”
Andell practically pounced. “That’s what they did when they stole my car,” he said. The recoil by the boy and his family was muted but clearly perceptible. “Now,” Andell went on, “how do you think I feel about car thieves?”
Andell is a tightly wound, flamboyant man. He runs marathons and wears loud ties and suspenders, and he clearly enjoys performing on the stage that the judge’s bench offers him. He has even appeared on radio programs as the “jammin’ judge.” But his manipulative theatrics are really a way of saying, “Wake up, kid. Now!” In this case, he left the boy in the care of his family and required him to pay $450 of the $900 damage to the car and to perform 100 hours of community service for the remainder.
In the lull that followed the family’s departure, Andell noticed a boy in a blue T-shirt waiting for his case to be heard. “Do you hope I’m in a good mood today?” the judge called down to him. The boy maintained a tense coolness, but he nodded slowly. “I’m not sure anymore,” Andell said.
Anyone involved in juvenile crime in Texas has good reason to be depressed. The latest statistics show how violent kids have become and how recent the plague really is. Last year juveniles committed 57 homicides in Harris County. In 1990 there were 32 homicides by juveniles; in 1988, just 12. Last year Harris County saw juveniles commit 541 robberies. In 1990 juveniles did 374 robberies; in 1988, 223. Felony assault and sexual assault show similar large increases. As violent crimes have risen, crimes against property have also risen, sometimes even faster. Auto theft rose from 351 in 1988 to 714 in 1990 to 894 last year—an increase of more than 250 percent in just four years. Meanwhile, nonviolent crimes and status crimes—acts such as running away, which are criminal only for children—have remained about the same or even dramatically decreased.
Sadly, these terrifying statistics may not be the worst horror. When talking to judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and probation officers, one hears the same glum observation: Today’s violent juvenile criminals commonly feel no remorse whatsoever. Kent Ellis, a lawyer with ten years of experience in the juvenile courts as a prosecutor and defense attorney, said he had recently defended a boy accused of committing murder for hire. “It wasn’t just that he was not remorseful,” Ellis said. “He was cheerful about it. Like it was something to be happy about.” Elizabeth Godwin is an assistant district attorney for Harris County in charge of the juvenile division. She says she is seeing a completely new kind of juvenile offender. “They aren’t influenced by any beneficial institution,” she explains. “They don’t care about school; they don’t care about church; they don’t care about family. They’re hardened. It’s not that they’re rebelling against something. There is just a vacuum there.” But ten years ago, when Godwin came to the juvenile division, she was optimistic for two reasons. She thought the juvenile justice system could help save kids, and she believed that a lot of kids would simply grow out of their troubles. Now she has lost her optimism. “I think you can grow out of everything but drugs and being truly violent,” she says. “And we aren’t doing much rehabilitation anymore. Our role is protecting society by keeping these kids off the streets.”
Certainly, crime has complicated social and psychological reasons, but the recent increase in violent juvenile crime has one clear and easily documented cause. In 1988 there were 249 felony drug offenses committed by juveniles in Harris County. In 1989, only one year later, that number jumped to 519, more than double the year before. In 1990 it rose to 584. Last year there were 732 juvenile felony drug offenses, a 25 percent increase in one year and almost a 300 percent increase from 1988. The growth in juvenile drug arrests corresponds exactly to the growth in violent crime. And the growth in drug arrests corresponds to the appearance in Houston of a single highly addictive and debilitating substance—crack cocaine. It had only a small presence in Houston in 1988, yet by 1989 it was the pervasive drug in depressed areas everywhere in the city.
With so much stress put so quickly on the juvenile justice system, it is a wonder it hasn’t completely collapsed. Although the system works somewhat differently in each county, the general pattern is the same. The laws governing juvenile justice are in the family code, making the juvenile courts civil, not criminal. A kid who completes probation after a conviction in a juvenile court and who has no more convictions until age 23 has his record sealed. As an adult he can truthfully say he has never been convicted of a crime.
Many children who get arrested never come to trial at all. The family code has always, as a lawyer expressed it, “contemplated” that some agency should decide whether the good of society is better served by prosecuting a kid who has been arrested or by handling the matter some other way. In Harris County the juvenile probation department makes that decision. Whoever has arrested the kid turns him or her over to juvenile probation, which decides whether to turn the case over to the district attorney’s office or to keep it within the agency. If the case stays with the agency, the juvenile signs a contract agreeing to various provisions, such as staying out of trouble, performing community service, taking training or entering psychological programs, and cooperating with intense supervision. If the kid fulfills the contract, charges won’t be filed. Most misdemeanors and even some nonviolent felonies are treated this way.
But according to guidelines from the district attorney’s office, certain crimes must be turned over for prosecution. The list changes somewhat according to current trends in crime, but now it includes home burglary, drug offenses, arson, extensive vandalism, crimes of violence, DWI, and carrying a handgun. Before a trial, the probation department has to file a background report on the child and include a recommendation for punishment. In very serious crimes, children aged fifteen or sixteen may be certified by a judge to stand trial as an adult. Or a judge or jury may give a juvenile a “determinate sentence” of up to forty years. Then the young offender must stay in the Texas Youth Commission until the age of eighteen, when he or she is either released or, in most cases, sent on to prison to complete the sentence. Kids cannot commit violent crimes and escape punishment.
In most cases, the punishment is simply probation, although the judge may add various stipulations. Judge Andell likes to require perfect school attendance and high marks in conduct. He doesn’t stress good classroom grades. “I would like for them to make good grades,” he says, “but I don’t know if they can. I want to give them something I know they can do. Most of these kids have known nothing but failure all their lives. And I know they can show up and keep their mouth closed.” Andell’s leniency extends as long as he feels the kid is trying to keep up his end of the bargain. If the kid doesn’t, the leniency ends.
It is hard to fault the way all of this works. It gives every reasonable indulgence to the child while giving the courts the means to protect society from dangerous, though young, members. On the whole, the people involved are doing a good job, most of them attracted to this area of the law because, as one frequently hears, “I thought this was a place I could make a difference.” And sometimes they do. I know a former car thief who is now attending college. The boy who stole with him is in prison for murder. But of the juveniles whose cases end up in court, real successes are few compared with the failures, the kids lost to crime, drugs, and mayhem forever.
Perhaps the system pays too much attention to serious offenders. Perhaps it should focus much more of its energy on the first-time, mild offender in the hope of changing a life while there is still time. Perhaps some kind of intervention, a youth boot camp or the like, would provide structure and discipline for kids who have never had either. Perhaps. But the main problem, of which drugs are simply the most virulent part, is that for so many of these children, society does not exist. Lawyer Kent Ellis said, “I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve had when I’ve told kids we need someone to come to court to speak up for them. Anyone at all. And they just look at me. They don’t know a single person who would show up and say something good about them.”