Make 'em Pay

Editor's note: It's impossible to pin down an exact moment, a single violent death or drive-by shooting, but sometime in the late '80s and early '90s, something strange and terrible seemed to happen in Texas and across the country. Suddenly, we were afraid of our children. A stream of news reports set the stage--stories of violent young thugs who robbed, raped and murdered without fear, without remorse.

The public demanded that something be done, and in 1995 Texas legislators, led by Governor George W. Bush, responded. They overhauled the state's juvenile justice system. No more mollycoddling young delinquents; a system that once aimed to act as an all-knowing parent in troubled young lives had a new philosophy: Do the crime, and you'll do the time.

How well has it worked? For the past six months, the Dallas Observer has interviewed dozens of lawyers, judges, lawmakers, counselors and young criminals attempting to gauge the long-term consequences of the reforms. The bottom line: Juvenile crime rates have fallen and the worst kids are locked up, but Texans are paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a system that isn't doing any better at keeping bad kids from misbehaving once they're out of custody.

Beginning this issue and in the weeks ahead, the Observer will bring you stories from the new landscape of juvenile justice, including Dallas County's troubled history with the nation's largest operator of juvenile boot camps. We'll take you inside a promising program in Tarrant County that is keeping delinquents out of trouble without lengthy stays behind bars. And we'll tell you about the lives of juveniles in adult prison--and more about how they got there--as well as the pressure that the growing number of mentally ill teens in custody is placing on a system ill-equipped to deal with it.

If you could ignore the fact that he's behind bars, Kendrick Carson, 18, handsome and expressive, might make an ideal poster boy to tout the successes of Texas' juvenile justice system.

His eyes brightening, Carson cracks a sweet boy-next-door smile as he recalls what he learned attending programs for violent and sexual offenders over the nearly six years he was imprisoned at the Texas Youth Commission facility in Giddings. He mouths all the right words.

"It was good stuff that they put you through," Carson says. "It made you realize why you did what you did. I never knew about my life story until then. I was looking at people in a different way than as humans. I think about my crimes all the time, and I wish they didn't happen. But I know my victim still thinks about them more than me."

In 1996, when he was 13, Carson was the boy next door, one who happened to spend a busy week burglarizing, robbing and terrorizing his Garland neighbors. That summer, he earned his ticket to TYC and his stripes as a "superpredator," the term coined in the mid-'90s to describe the stream of violent, remorseless juveniles whose horrific crimes filled the nation's newspapers and inspired Texas to enact a sweeping set of get-tough laws six years ago.

Though up until then he had never been nabbed for as much as truancy, Carson made up for lost time during seven busy days and nights that July. For starters, he broke into a neighbor's house at 3 a.m. and pilfered cash from her purse. A few days later, he used his dad's gun to rob a convenience store. "Keep the ones," he told the clerk and walked out with the fives and tens. The next evening, he held the gun to the temple of a 52-year-old neighbor, forced her to undress and attempted to rape her, stopping only when she told him she had AIDS, according to police. "He told me not to call the police or he would shoot me dead," the woman later testified at a court hearing before Dallas County District Judge Harold Gaither.

Had Carson committed his crimes six months earlier, before the massive overhaul of the juvenile code, Gaither could have sent Carson to the youth commission, but he likely would have stayed there no more than two years. At the time, the state agency was chronically short on beds, and the average time young delinquents spent there was just 12 months. But with their reforms, Texas legislators had begun pumping more than $200 million into building and operating lockups at the county and state levels.

The Austin reformers also gave judges the leeway they needed to send young thugs away for a long time, to adult prison if necessary. In Carson's case, Gaither relied on the new legislation and ordered him to serve 30 years. His first stop would be at TYC. If he didn't shape up there, his next stop would be adult prison when he turned 18--or 16, if he misbehaved badly enough.