A Minor Affair

Sheldon Pearl is edgy.
As the new school year draws near, the East Dallas teen-ager can't seem to shake the anxiety that knots his neck muscles and clutches at his stomach. He tried to keep calm during the summer, spending several weeks, as he has in the past, looking after his brain-damaged 7-year-old cousin who is confined to a wheelchair. But he really only found peace when he left Dallas behind--for a week at Christian Youth Fellowship camp, a long weekend at his family's annual reunion, and the few days he hied down to Houston to visit some relatives.

Now school is less than two weeks away, and he has a recurring fear that when he walks down the crowded halls of Skyline High School, a uniformed, gun-toting Dallas police officer will arrest and handcuff him.

Just like last fall.
Last November, when Sheldon was 14, his ex-girlfriend accused him of raping her. The case languished in the juvenile justice system for the next seven months, although even a cursory look at the facts show that this was very likely a false accusation made by an emotionally troubled young girl.

The girl made the allegation almost a week after she claimed the rape occurred--to police officers who were arresting her for assaulting her 69-year-old grandmother. It was the sixth time in two months the girl had been reported to the authorities for violent behavior. Even though the girl gave conflicting stories about the alleged rape, told people she was seeking revenge against her former boyfriend, and at one point, early on, even agreed to drop the charges, prosecutors refused to let the case go. Instead, the case dragged on through the entire school year, with each visit to court or the lawyer's office giving Sheldon headaches and stomach pains for days.

Finally in late June, just three weeks before trial, the district attorney suddenly, without explanation, decided to dismiss the case.

Still, Sheldon cannot rejoice or even relax. The District Attorney's Office dismissed the case in a way that would allow prosecutors to refile it anytime in the next four years, if they see fit. The District Attorney's Office has refused to return phone calls from Sheldon's parents or his court-appointed attorney, so Sheldon has no way of knowing if he'll meet a police officer outside his classroom door.

For as long as he remains in this state of legal limbo, Sheldon Pearl will continue to suffer jangled nerves. And as a new school year begins, he will be looking over his shoulder.

Children seem to be growing up ever faster and harder. The average age at which teens begin engaging in sexual activity keeps declining, while their participation in violent crime--rape, assault, and murder--soars, making it the only category of crime that actually is increasing in this country, according to FBI statistics.

Getting tough on teen crime has been, in recent years, the rallying cry of politicians and legislators nationwide. George W. Bush made it the centerpiece of his campaign for governor; the Texas Legislature devoted much of its time during the past session to overhauling the juvenile justice system, including stiffening penalties and reducing the age at which youthful offenders could be tried as adults.

The get-tough-on-kids trend is a reaction to a judicial system that some critics say coddles violent, if young, criminals.

Between the children and the hard-liners is the juvenile justice system. Just as the teen-age years exist in a kind of nether world--no longer children, not yet adults--the juvenile justice system has always been an awkward hybrid, a cross between punishment and social work, where the emphasis is supposed to be on rehabilitation. Second chances and redemption are what this system has traditionally been about, which is why the names of all but the most violent youthful offenders who are tried as adults are kept from the public. Juvenile offenders' records are sealed and their criminal slate is wiped clean when they hit 17 and enter what the state defines as adulthood.

The system afforded Sheldon Pearl and his ex-girlfriend this anonymity. His ex-girlfriend, who we'll call Rhonda, declined to talk to the Dallas Observer. Her father, who still maintains that Sheldon abused and raped his daughter, refused to discuss the case in detail. "My daughter's through with it," he says. "She wants it to be finished."

But Sheldon, with the blessing of his parents, decided to forsake his anonymity in telling his story. After being arrested in school and dragged through the system, he has nothing to hide, he and his parents say. Moreover, they complain the secrecy in the name of protection that shrouds the juvenile justice system too often hides its flaws--flaws that injured Sheldon and cast a shadow on his future.

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Ann Zimmerman