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.
In any case, Carson would be off the street for a long while, good news for taxpayers who foot the bill today for feeding, clothing and housing about 6,000 young delinquents at TYC facilities, up from 2,800 the year before the reforms were enacted. Lawmakers, academics and attorneys who helped fashion the reforms contend that removing predators like Carson from our communities accounts directly for the fact that juvenile crime in Texas is down about 38 percent since 1995.
"The bad actors are locked up. That's probably one of the biggest reasons we have a lower crime rate," says state Representative Toby Goodman, the Arlington Republican who chaired the committee that shaped the reform package in the mid-'90s.
Carson flourished under the TYC boot-camp-like regimens created with the reforms. Gone were the television sets, comfortable day rooms and street clothes. Now young criminals were dressed in prison garb and treated to 16-hour days of exercise, school and group counseling. Carson graduated from much-lauded TYC programs for violent and sexual offenders.
Last fall, he moved to a halfway house in southern Houston, then into an assisted living program further north. Finally, in March, he moved into his own apartment in southwest Houston, reporting to his parole officer at least every other week and working the night shift at a McDonald's with his roommate and best friend, a fellow TYC graduate.
"It was tight. One night we saw Carl Thomas [the R&B singer] come in, right into our McDonald's," he says.
The good times didn't last. Four months after moving out on his own, Carson was back in jail. On July 3, he was arrested in Montgomery County, north of Houston, for stealing a van. "I had a chance to run, but I knew that would only make it worse," Carson says.
Indicted the next week, he now awaits a hearing in an adult court. As a TYC parole violator with 25 years of his original juvenile sentence still remaining, Carson faces much worse than the two years a first-time car thief might receive. If his parole is revoked, he will spend at least seven years in prison before being eligible for release.
For taxpayers, who bankrolled the nearly $35,000 a year that it cost to lock up and attempt to rehabilitate Carson since he was 13, his latest arrest throws into high relief a troubling question about the juvenile justice reforms of the '90s: Why do nearly half of the delinquents who leave the tough new TYC commit more crimes within a year of being set free?
This year, the state will spend more than half a billion dollars to fund the youth commission and county-level juvenile departments combined, more than double the amounts being spent in 1994. Some of the worst young criminals--murderers and rapists among them--will be shipped out of the juvenile system to find homes in adult prisons.
And when they get out, about half will, like Carson, wind up in trouble again. The reformed TYC has roughly the same recidivism rate as the old. Texas counties haven't fared much better. They've received about $47 million in state subsidies to build boot camps that drill delinquents with Marine-like discipline. There are now nearly 1,200 county-operated boot camp beds, twice the number in 1998, and the camps often have worse recidivism rates than other types of incarceration.
Only a small number of juvenile programs, those that typically don't involve incarceration but provide juvenile offenders and their troubled families intensive counseling, have shown dramatic differences in recidivism rates. The counselors in these programs do whatever is necessary--working with schools, getting mental health services, providing drug testing--to get the offender's life in order. They even teach parents how to parent.
Granted, intensive at-home counseling may not be appropriate for would-be rapists or armed robbers, but the vast majority of kids who wind up in the hands of juvenile authorities--some 92 percent of all delinquents in Texas and the nation--are there because they committed nonviolent offenses. They've taken joyrides, run away from home, skipped school repeatedly and used drugs.
Only some 30 percent of the kids get rearrested after completing this sort of intensive community-based program, according to the administrators and researchers. Such efforts often cost as little as half as much as incarceration; in Texas, similar programs receive a paltry 0.03 percent of county juvenile budgets.
Texas Juvenile Probation Commission Executive Director Vicki Spriggs, an 18-year industry veteran who has served in her current post since 1995, has started championing the alternatives. "I firmly believe in rebuilding the family," she says. "There are some kids that still need placement, but I don't want day-care situations [where kids are just warehoused]. That is a waste of everyone's time and money."
Ron Stretcher, deputy director of administration for the Dallas County Juvenile Department, has pushed through a $800,000 program--out of the $48 million annual budget for the county's juvenile department--for home-based rehabilitation.
But both Spriggs and Stretcher recognize that their alternatives, no matter how effective, don't offer the political appeal of incarcerating bad kids. Nor do they answer the question of what to do with all the bed space TYC and the counties have invested in these past five years. Authorities in Texas have spent more than $200 million over the past five years on new lockups, a major disincentive to creating nonresidential counseling. "It's hard to go to community-based programs when you've got a spanking-new facility in the county," Spriggs says.
Given the violent nature of his crimes, it's doubtful that in-home counseling would have been an option for Kendrick Carson. When he was 13, Carson told a Dallas County psychologist that he committed the crimes because he'd been inspired by the movies, and, "You just wanna be grown-up so fast, and you wish you wasn't a kid."
Asked what he was thinking during his offenses, he said, "It was no big deal. It seemed like I had done it before. It was just like I thought it would be."
At the end of his report, the juvenile department psychologist noted that "Kendrick's ability to reason and think in a logical, coherent and reality-based fashion has been severely compromised. This kind of disturbed thinking is usually marked by very flawed judgment...These kinds of thought patterns are likely resulting from an excessive number of experiences of helplessness and unfulfilled needs...Family therapy will be important to Kendrick's treatment. It seems there are issues in the family of emotional expression which have contributed to Kendrick's current condition."
Locked up at 13, he never returned to his family.
Carson's crimes began simply enough. In early July 1996, he climbed through the den window of his neighbor's house as the owner, whose lawn he'd just mowed that day for $20, slept on her couch. She awoke to find that the unarmed boy had taken juice from her refrigerator and rifled through her purse.
Six days later, wearing a baseball cap and white bandanna over his face, Carson walked into a One-Stop Food Store, pointed a small-caliber revolver at the attendant and said, "Give me your money."
Today, Carson says he held up the store because he wanted to go to Six Flags, and mowing lawns wasn't bringing in the bucks quickly enough. "I thought, 'What do most people do when they want money fast?' I thought about what I had seen in the movies, and then I thought about the store down the street that was all by itself."
None of Carson's crimes merited mention in the news. The Dallas Morning News had bigger, scarier stories to report of kids run amok.
The tide of violence swept Carson's own city, Garland. Though by 1996 crime rates in the suburb were following a national trend and inching down from their historic highs of four years earlier, violence among teens was still terrifyingly frequent.
"I knew it wasn't firecrackers," Sharon Stotts told a Morning News reporter in July 1996 during a three-week spate of gang-related drive-by shootings.
The drive-bys began when a 16-year-old and some of his fellow gang members fired 30 rounds into the family home of a gang rival. A few days later, a carload of young men opened fire on a city street, wounding one man.
"That really woke people up," says Stotts, a Garland City Council member and coordinator of the WestSide Neighborhood Crime Watch. "We had thousands of people attending our meetings after that. People were really scared, because it happened during the early-evening hours when they were still awake."
Gangs weren't the only problem. Four months after Carson was arrested, a 15-year-old Garland boy fatally stabbed his 80-year-old grandmother more than 10 times. Not apprehended until four years later, Michael Leon Giles, then 19, was certified to stand trial as an adult. After pleading guilty to murder, Giles was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Dallas County wasn't alone. In 1993 in Harris County, home to Houston, kids between the ages of 10 and 17 committed 75 murders, 78 cases of arson, 226 sexual assaults, 685 felony assaults and 2,588 robberies and burglaries. San Antonio, meanwhile, earned the dubious title of drive-by shooting capital of the United States, reporting 60 cases of murder, attempted murders and manslaughter by juveniles in 1993.
Judge Hal Gaither, a former juvenile prosecutor, saw the effects of the carnage from his bench. "We really did have 'superpredators' who had high-caliber weapons," he says. "They had very little conscience. They knew nothing was going to happen to them. Kids could literally get away with murder if a prosecutor refused to certify them" to stand trial as adults.
The depths of depravity he saw among killer kids during the first half of the last decade still haunt Gaither. He recalls a Pleasant Grove youth who murdered a hairdresser for $6 a few nights after he had stabbed an 80-year-old more than 20 times, killing her. Then there was a boy who blew the head off a Domino's Pizza delivery driver. "They had decided before he delivered the pizza, if it were a white man, they were going to kill him," Gaither recalls about the killer and his accomplice.
The news coverage of the sensational crimes contributed to the sense among the population that monsters stalked among America's youths. Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report had more than half a dozen cover stories between 1990 and 1996 about teen violence.
A 52-year-old family lawyer and former assistant city attorney for Arlington, state Representative Goodman steered the state's reforms from his chairmanship of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues. Even he admits that the solutions to juvenile crime still elude him. "It's frustrating as a state legislator. It's real hard to tell what kind of program will work," he says. Goodman is stumped about Texas' juvenile recidivism rate. "I've spent hours and hours with that. Every session I urge we do a better job with recidivism. I really thought recidivism rates would be cut in half, and they weren't."
While the notion of a superpredator still prevails among the Texas politicians who led the reforms, the theory has developed detractors, among them the man who coined the term. John J. DiIulio Jr., who in August resigned as the head of the White House's office of faith-based and community initiatives, studied juvenile crime and co-wrote Body Count: Moral Poverty...and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs with former drug czar William Bennett and John P. Walters. The book, published in 1996, warned of armies of juvenile sociopaths, "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more preteen-age boys." The predators fear neither "the stigma of arrest, pains of imprisonment nor the pangs of conscience."
Nowadays, DiIulio says he regrets promoting that theory; his forecast of a violent crime epidemic among adolescents never materialized. While Goodman and other legislators were preparing for the growing ranks of superpredators, violent juvenile crime in Texas and the nation had already started dropping. Nor were criminals--as the superpredator theory held--getting younger. The violent crime rate for 10- to 12-year-olds has stayed steady since 1984.
But the public's concern and the press coverage of juvenile crime did not fall with the declining crime rates.
"The epidemic of media crime coverage was unrelated to the actual incidence of crime. Nonetheless it exerted a powerful influence on the juvenile crime debate during the 1990s, and it remains today the pivotal ingredient in the public's understanding of crime issues," writes Richard Mendel, a researcher for the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit organization for professionals. Mendel, who has written a two-part study that heralds the effectiveness of at-home juvenile programs, contends that the superpredator was a myth that clouded the picture for juvenile authorities as they attempted to evaluate rehabilitation programs.
The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission's Spriggs agrees the flawed theories skewed thinking. "The problem is any person who looks at any child as a predator is taking away their humanity," she says. "You can do anything with them then."
In the mid-'90s in Texas, politicians, led by then-gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush, received applause when they talked about taking a tough new tack with young thugs.
To a Sherman crowd, during a typical stump speech in 1994, then-candidate Bush pledged: "It's always been normal when a child turns into a criminal to say that it's our fault--society's fault. Well, under George W. Bush, it's your fault. You're going to get locked up, because we aren't going to have any more guilt-ridden thoughts that say that we are somehow responsible...In order to win the war, we've got to make these criminals realize we mean punishment."
When he became governor, Bush delivered on his promise. In 1995, he signed legislation that put more punitive bite into the state's juvenile justice system than ever before. Lawmakers redefined the juvenile justice system's purpose to one of "promot[ing] the concept of punishment for criminal acts" rather than focusing solely on rehabilitation. Never before had the juvenile system even included the concept of punishment until the new laws became effective on January 1, 1996.
Before the reforms, the Texas juvenile justice system attempted to serve as a parent in kids' lives when their own guardians failed. "It was kind of like going in and sitting with your father," Gaither says. Nationwide, the guiding principles of the segregated juvenile justice systems were the same: Children were less culpable than adults and possessed more potential for rehabilitation.
With the reforms, the legislators set up much stricter guidelines for juvenile court judges to follow. When a kid who played hooky came to juvenile court, an infraction often excused with finger-wagging in the past, the judge was supposed to order the juvenile's guardians to attend counseling and the youth to perform dozens of hours of community service. If the kid carried a gun while committing a misdemeanor, before the reforms he might have gone home that night. Now he had to stay overnight in detention and be placed on probation, including the possibility of placement outside the home, for at least six months.
As chairman of the House committee on juvenile justice, Goodman heard the public outcry for "adult time for adult crime," but he wanted to balance that with programs that didn't simply write off all young offenders.
Under Goodman's plan, the legislators more than doubled the number of offenses for which a child as young as 10 could receive a 10- to 40-year "determinate sentence." The sentencing program, unique to Texas, applies to youths who commit any one of nearly two dozen felonies, including aggravated assault or robbery, injury to a child, drug dealing and manslaughter. Under the sentence, young criminals spend a minimum determined amount of time at a youth commission facility. Afterward, judges have the option, with TYC officials' recommendation, of sending a delinquent to an adult prison after his or her 16th birthday without going through a lengthy certification hearing and criminal trial.
One goal of the reforms was to bring more uniformity to treatment of juvenile delinquents. Historically, a black youth in Houston faced a much greater chance of serving time at TYC than a white kid from Fort Worth. In Harris County, judges sent juveniles to TYC for lesser offenses, and they sent blacks and Hispanics at a higher rate than their white juvenile peers.
Yet the new laws allowed judges so much discretion in following the punishment guidelines that calculating their real effect is virtually impossible. "The progressive sanction guidelines have not worked," Goodman says. Most of the time when judges ignore the guidelines, they order less harsh punishment.
The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, which monitors both the adult and juvenile penal systems, this summer produced a study that broke out by race--blacks, Hispanics and whites--how often juvenile court judges meted out punishment that was more severe than state guidelines recommended. In 1999 statewide, judges issued harsher punishment than the guidelines called for in roughly 15 percent of the cases for blacks and whites and 13 percent for Hispanics. In Harris County, however, the judges issued harsher penalties against black and Hispanic delinquents 33 percent of the time, compared with 29 percent of the cases involving whites.
Harris County Juvenile Probation Department chief Elmer Bailey says that may look like discrimination, but it isn't. The disparities merely reflect the fact that black kids come to the court more needy from worse or more impoverished homes. The judges send more black youths to the youth commission and other lockups because that's the only place these kids can get the services they need, he claims.
Goodman and others have their doubts. "How many black judges do you have in Houston?" he asks. (Only one juvenile court judge in Harris County is African-American.) "We called it the theory of benevolent incarceration," recalls one leading Texas juvenile justice professional, who listened skeptically when Bailey offered his explanations for the disparities at a meeting last spring.
Texas was not alone in meeting the rise in juvenile crime with tougher laws. Since 1992, 45 states have passed or amended laws making it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults. Indeed, many states have established stiffer policies than Texas. In 15 other states, including Florida, prosecutors have the sole discretion to determine whether a child should be tried as an adult. Some 28 state legislatures have passed laws that require children to be shipped automatically to adult court if they commit certain crimes. In Vermont and Kansas, 10-year-olds are eligible to be prosecuted as adults.
Since 1997, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state's adult prisons, has designated one unit for its steady inflow of youthful offenders, providing education and some rehabilitative programs, the Clemens Unit in Brazoria County, south of Houston.
In late July, inmates, teachers, counselors, guards and the warden gathered for an important ceremony at the Clemens Unit. This wasn't your nasty Texas prison scene. Fourteen young men stood before the group and talked about how they'd changed--how they'd become men within the cell blocks and razor-wire perimeter.
These first graduates of TDCJ's redesigned Youthful Offender Program were downright proud of the commemorative certificates they held in their hands. After the testimonials, the program's director, 33-year-old psychologist Diana Coates, handed out a gift that signaled the graduates' entry into a new world. It was the dingy white, two-piece prison uniform that inmates in the "general population" are privileged to wear. That's how the kids saw it, anyway--a big step up from the shapeless, baggy-butt jumpsuits they'd worn so far.
Coates was proud, too. Her kids were ready for success, ready for the dozens of picayune rules that inmates must obey in order to avoid "catching a case," or getting written up for discipline.
Coates has run some version of the Youthful Offender Program since 1997, when TDCJ started experiencing a huge spike of adolescent inmates, a result of the 1996 reforms. While the state hadn't mandated any special program for youthful inmates--let alone any funds--TDCJ officials knew it wasn't wise to simply absorb them into the general population.
It was left up to Coates to devise a plan. The former Dallas County Juvenile Department associate psychologist, armed with a tiny budget squeezed from TDCJ's general funds, began crafting a program that involved school, counseling and nonstop activity. Today, the program has evolved into what Coates calls a "therapeutic community" for young minimum-security inmates. Though there are roughly 250 inmates housed at the Clemens Unit, only 75 can take part in the nine- to 12-month program at a given time.
Right now, there is a waiting list.
Coates described the concept of a "therapeutic community," which she put together by mixing and matching bits of programs and models for programs she'd seen or heard about elsewhere. TDCJ, in fact, is a pioneer in developing a youthful offender program, and Coates now serves as a consultant to other states through her work with the National Institute of Corrections. "What we're attempting to do with the therapeutic community is to create a family atmosphere for these kids where they realize what they do affects other people," she says. "These kids care more about peer pressure than they care about what I have to say to them, so what we've done, if one of them messes up, they all have to suffer the consequences.
"I don't call it a rehab program. I say it's a habilitation program. In this program, these kids have never been in a normally functioning state."
The backbone of the program is rigid structure. The kids' day starts with a wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. A typical day involves school all morning--about half the inmates earn their GEDs in the program--and six to eight hours of group and individual counseling in the afternoon. Volunteers come on the weekends to offer optional activities, many of them with Christian content. Coates was getting ready to host the Power Team, a group of traveling, brick-crushing Christian bodybuilders. "They like seeing stuff smashed," Coates says of the inmates.
All of this is accomplished on a puny official budget of slightly more than $100,000, which covers Coates' salary as well as those of two counselors and a secretary. Split four ways, the money doesn't go far. But TDCJ has allowed Coates to borrow some resources from other departments: a security officer and four additional counselors, each of whom carries a caseload of 12 to 15 kids. That, and 900 extra sandwiches and 900 extra cartons of milk each day, since the kids are always hungry.
With more funding, Coates would like to see the program expanded to all of the adolescents housed in the Clemens Unit, then to counseling on weekends that involves their families. Right now, she wanders through the visiting room on the weekends, talking to parents and handing out her business card. "I rarely see these kids come from two-parent households," she says. "There is often a lack of parental supervision at home."
During her typical 50-hour week, Coates keeps her office door open to the kids, who look like normal teen-agers--except for the jumpsuits. "When you look at these kids, they look like adolescents," she says. "It's hard to put a face with the crime."
Their crimes, however, can be as serious as capital murder, like Billy Ray Dennis Jr. (see "The Superpredator," page 33), who entered an early version of the Youthful Offender Program at 14 and conspicuously flamed out.
Among the graduates in late July was 20-year-old Bill Everett, who had been convicted of armed robbery in Palo Pinto County when he was 17. Everything had changed, he'd said, since the day he cruised into that bank with an older buddy in Mingus, population 56, where "they all knew I was a knucklehead." Walking down the street a few hours later, high on methamphetamines, Everett knew he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
None of that mattered in court, where he stood trial as an adult--bypassing the juvenile system--and plea-bargained for an eight-year sentence. Like most younger male TDCJ inmates, he got sent to the Clemens Unit and had a chance to participate in the Youthful Offender Program. A year later, he says he's obtained his GED, set some goals for life and learned to control the overwhelming anger that once defined him.
"It's been a life-changing experience," Everett says. "Not all of it's been pretty. Not all of it's been fun. When the program first started, I thought I could manipulate my way through the system and everything would be peaches and cream."
Not with Coates. A Baptist minister's wife who was raised in a rural village outside Texarkana, Coates enforces an old-fashioned code of decorum and decency. The young men must shake a visitor's hand firmly. They must speak up, not mumble, and practice the virtues of honesty and humility.
"We try to catch them doing something good, and we praise them," Coates says. "The praise is kind of infectious--they want more and more."
Now Everett, who's been denied parole once, is looking ahead to getting out. He recently reflected on his experiences in the program, which uses the considerable force of peer pressure to push young offenders onto the straight and narrow. One aspect of the curriculum is sessions in which one youth confronts another in front of the entire group of 75. These experiences teach kids to "confront people appropriately," Coates says, instead of "just cussing somebody out or shooting them."
"They put me in front of the whole community and made me look like a chump, and I have to humble myself and accept it," Everett says. "It's changed me from the inside out."
Dave Moffett, a Houston man serving a five-year sentence for a robbery he committed at 17, took another tack on attaining success in the program. When he first arrived, Coates says, "He had one emotion, and it was mad." He was smart enough to realize, though, that he'd have to cooperate on some level to survive. "They got to telling me to fake it till I made it," Moffett says of his fellow inmates. "After I got to faking it so much, it got to be a part of me."
Moffett, Everett and the 12 other graduates will become the gauge of the Youthful Offender Program's success, Coates says.
"It's so rewarding with these kids; you see such a change in them," she says. But only when they're released into the real world, immersed in the temptations that got them here in the first place, can the program's real success be measured.
In general, housing youths in an adult prison costs less than keeping them in juvenile facilities. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice charges taxpayers about $40 a day to keep a prisoner, compared with TYC's average of $129 per day.
That extra money doesn't mean young criminals have it easy.
During his four months in his own apartment, Kendrick Carson remembers how he and his roommate, another TYC alumnus, would tease each other about what their friends still in state custody were doing. Usually it would be something unpleasant--exercises, school, mowing lawns, kitchen work. "We'd be like, 'Man, let's get out and enjoy our freedom,'" Carson says.
With the reforms and increased funding came a new, harsher environment. In the pre-reform days, Gaither recalls, juvenile detention "looked better than a good junior college." Delinquents could wear their street clothes. They had their own rooms, some with televisions. Their day rooms had video games and pinball machines.
The post-reform TYC projects had an entirely different image.
Under the reforms, TYC is supposed to be getting the worst of the worst--short of those youths certified as adults and sent directly to adult prison. Only when a youth uses a deadly weapon or causes serious bodily injury, for instance, do the sanction guidelines call for a sentence with TYC. Otherwise, the guidelines call for the counties to place the youth in a secure residential facility.
To rehabilitate the toughest, TYC has gotten much more money. The funding demands at the agency have accelerated at a rapid pace, with the average cost per day rising 17 percent between 1998 and 2000.
More TYC residents are acquiring their GEDs, and their reading and math skills as measured by standardized achievement tests are improving at a faster than average rate. The turnover rate for TYC employees has declined about 38 percent since the funding increased, and the ratio of kids to caseworkers has fallen from 20 kids for every professional to 14.
Some older TYC facilities--the agency doesn't call them jails--still have the landscaped lawns and cottages that reflect TYC's past as an institution that cared for orphans and delinquents. But the newer construction "is no frills, concrete and steel," says TYC Executive Director Steve Robinson.
Roughly 35 percent of new inmates enter one of the special programs for sex offenders, drug addicts, the emotionally disturbed, murderers or seriously violent criminals.
Carson went through the much-lauded violent and sex offenders program at the TYC facility in Giddings. While unwilling to talk about the boy's case specifically, Butch Held, the superintendent at Giddings State School, says that 12 youths at a time participate in the violent offenders program for six months, and 121 undergo therapy for sexual offenders for one year. In both programs, the youths are required to show empathy for their victims.
When Carson attended the sex offenders program, he was asked to write a letter to the victim of his assault.
In her testimony during his hearing, the woman described Carson's bizarre attempt to conceal his identity, even though she knew him well because he'd mowed her yard for two years. At 10 o'clock one night, Carson entered her home through a sliding glass door. Inside, he pointed a gun at her and ordered her to strip. "Kendrick Carson, what are you doing?" she remembered asking. He pretended not to know who Kendrick Carson was.
The woman begged him to leave. She offered him money. He asked her if she wanted to die. He insisted she take off her shirt, then fondled her breasts. He told her to move into the bedroom and lie down. As he exposed himself and lay on top of her, she called his name. He kept asking her who Kendrick Carson was. Finally, she testified, she stood up and said, "This isn't going to happen." Carson stepped out in the hall and said, "Are you a Christian?" The woman replied she was and asked him to spare her life so she could care for her son, who was profoundly mentally retarded. Carson asked to see her son and followed her down the hall with the gun still pointed at her head. "I said...'You really don't want to be doing this...Please just leave and spare our lives so I can take care of my son,'" the woman later testified.
"OK, I'll cut a deal with you because you're Christian and because of your son. I won't kill you," Carson told her.
The teen-ager now says he hatched the plan to rape the woman because he wanted to lose his virginity. "I was too scared to ask a girl my own age because I was circumcised and no one else was." He had sketched out the attack in his mind, but when he got inside, "I was scared. It was a whole different thing than I had imagined.
"When I left, I was like, 'Dang, I wish I hadn't done that.' I went to sleep, and I wanted to think that it didn't happen, but it did." He looks down. "I know she still thinks about it three times more than I do," he says.
Carson never finished the letter he was supposed to write to the woman. "I wanted to make sure the letter was a good one, and I never got it right," he says.
With a 30-year determinate sentence in hand, Carson's counselors could have come back to Judge Gaither after his 16th birthday and asked that he be shipped to adult prison to serve out his term. Texas is one of the few states that has a system where a delinquent's behavior in a youth prison determines whether he or she ends up in the grown-up pen.
Of the 1,233 youths with determinate sentences who were sent under the reforms, 718 remain at the youth agency; 165 had become TDCJ inmates; 137 had completed their TYC sentences and gone home. The remainder were on parole, in halfway houses or had been recommitted by the courts. Stan DeGerolami, administrator of sentenced offender disposition for TYC, says 44 percent of the youths eligible under the new expanded determinate sentence law are transferred at some point to adult prison.
For Gaither, one of the proponents of determinate sentencing, the state's approach offers an alternative to the lengthy and unpredictable process of certifying a youth to stand trial as an adult and persuading a jury to send the guilty to an adult prison. "It sounded tough to certify kids as adults, but this actually puts more in the pen. A [criminal court] jury will not give a juvenile a long sentence," Gaither says.
At TYC, the threat of adult time provides an incentive: Respond to TYC's counseling and avoid a trip to the pen. Or so the theory goes. A case from Fort Worth is challenging that notion.
On a September night in 1995, 63-year-old Woodrow Willard Pratt was shot to death as he walked his dog in his quiet Fort Worth neighborhood near Ridglea Country Club. Three teens had planned to rob Pratt, but the oldest fired a shotgun into his back after learning Pratt was carrying no money. Pratt's murder shocked the city not only by its abject cruelty and senselessness--the gunman bragged that he shot Pratt because he wasn't carrying his wallet or any money that night--but also by the ages of his three attackers: 14, 15 and 16.
The 16-year-old gunman and his 15-year-old accomplice would be tried as adults and sent to prison. The youngest, "Little Robert" Valle Jr., would be given a 30-year determinate sentence and be sent to TYC's violent offenders program at Giddings.
Valle's counselors there would describe him as something of a star for the agency's rehabilitation efforts.
"It's kind of shocking but wonderful," Valle's probation supervisor Mary Kelleher told the juvenile court in October 1998, when TYC asked that he be allowed to stay in the youth facility at Giddings and avoid a trip to the pen. "I don't think I've ever seen a child get so much out of TYC." Such a dramatic change, however, didn't save him. Shortly before the end of 1998, Valle was sent to TDCJ's Clemens Unit to serve the balance of his 30-year sentence.
"We don't think he got a fair shake," his appellate lawyer Ward Casey says. His case, more than any other, says the attorney, exposes the flaws in the state's use of determinate sentences. Last month, Casey asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin to set aside Valle's sentence and order his release. One of the constitutional issues among many that Casey is raising is the fact that Valle was convicted of capital murder by a juvenile court, a civil proceeding under the Texas Family Code, and he has been sent to an adult criminal prison for 26 more years without ever having appeared before a criminal court.
The Tarrant County District Attorney's Office argues that since Valle won't have a criminal record when he leaves prison in 2025, he isn't really convicted. Therefore, their argument goes, he can't claim the same constitutional right to fight his lengthy incarceration as those convicted in criminal proceedings. "I guess he's just grounded, Texas-style," Casey laments.
Robert Dawson, the University of Texas School of Law professor who wrote much of the specific language in the reforms, angrily rejects arguments that the determinate sentencing system violates constitutional rights. "This is much better, rather than what every other goddamn state does, sending them straight to the pen. If this system gets declared unconstitutional--and it won't--we'll end up with more kids in the adult system," Dawson says.
And no one--not even the proponents of tough sentencing--considers that a good option.
Donna Bishop, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, interviewed some 5,400 Florida juvenile offenders in adult and juvenile facilities. She reported that those who stayed in the juvenile system had a 19 percent chance of getting rearrested. Those in the adult pen had a 30 percent chance.
Her recent work has shown that simply being brought to adult criminal court, even if the youth is acquitted, increases the odds of rearrest. "It's something about being treated as an adult, perhaps the stigma attached or the fact that it's harder to get jobs with a record, or a greater risk of getting victimized or exposure to more hardened criminals," Bishop says.
For Kendrick Carson, the threat behind his determinate sentence was not enough to stop him from committing another crime.
A fight with his girlfriend led up to his most recent theft, Carson says from his stall in the visiting room at the Montgomery County jail.
"She would always lie about where she was and where she'd be. She had my home keys and my cell phone, and my roommate said to me, 'Don't let anybody hold you down,'" Carson recalls.
The couple had planned to go out to dinner that evening. But every time he went to the street pay phone to call her, she'd put him off and tell him she wasn't ready. When he called her at about midnight, she stood him up. Hungry and unable to sleep, Carson wandered out walking later that evening. With relish, he describes the opportunity presented when he discovered an unlocked vehicle in a parking lot at about 4 a.m. "The devil was very busy that night, putting the van right there for me," he says, smiling.
As if recalling a dream or a movie, he remembers climbing in the van, which he claims was already running, and stopping to purchase $5 worth of gas. At that point, he says, he reconsidered his crime. "The Lord told me to put it back, but I didn't listen."
Climbing back into the van and speeding along at 100 mph, Carson recalls with excitement the flickering police lights behind him. "I was like, 'Oh man, not again.' I knew I shouldn't have done that," Carson says.
On TYC's Web site (tyc.state.tx.us), officials boast that the percentage of youths who are rearrested for a violent crime within a year of release has dropped from 14.2 percent in 1996 to 7.6 percent in 2000.
But other researchers say it's more important to look at who's been arrested within three years of release. Delving further into the TYC Web page reveals that in 1996, 54.3 percent of the TYC graduates were jailed for an offense within three years of their release. In 2000, that rate had fallen a few points, to 50.7 percent. And the rearrest rate for all offenders--not just violent youths--after one year has actually risen slightly, from 52.6 percent in 1996 to 53.7 percent in 2000.
Dallas County Juvenile Department officials are looking at the numbers and beginning to ask if there might be a better way to keep kids from committing further crimes. One approach being considered at the county level keeps nonviolent offenders at home and intensively counsels the children and their families. In the relatively rare instances in which it has been tried in Texas in the past five years, early intervention has shown promise.
In Tarrant County, juvenile department authorities rejected $3.7 million from the state five years ago for construction of county boot camps, opting instead to set up a nonresidential program that offers counseling, 24-hour crisis intervention and parenting, anger-management and problem-solving classes. Only 25 percent of the kids participating in the program have subsequent contact with the juvenile court. Intervening early and counseling kids and their families are the underlying principles to the programs juvenile justice research has spotlighted as effective and cost-saving. Since the early '90s, juvenile justice officials in Memphis, Tennessee, have implemented a practice given the clumsy moniker "Multisystemic Therapy" that amounts to baby-sitting a juvenile delinquent's family.
Now adopted throughout Tennessee because of its success in lowering recidivism rates, the program dispatches trained mental health counselors to work with troubled teens in their homes every day for months at a time. It's more expensive and staff-intensive than some of the other intervention efforts, but at less than $70 per day per kid, still cheaper than residential treatment, which ranges from $70 to $120 a day.
Dallas County has contracted with Intercept, a nonprofit company that runs the Tennessee program, to work with some 45 delinquents and their families in the next four to six months in Dallas. Sixteen kids who committed crimes as serious as car theft have gone through a pilot program in the past six months at $60 a day per kid. (A stay at a Dallas County boot camp costs $10 a day more per kid.)
Jay Pruett, the regional director for Intercept, says he expects a slightly higher recidivism rate in Texas because it is accepting only children who have been recommended because of delinquency. In Tennessee, the program also handles cases of child abuse and neglect, calculating the "recidivism" rate based on the number of families that need further help.
Daniel, the 13-year-old nephew of Nicky and Carolyn Jordan, graduated from the Intercept program in Tennessee. Before he started it last November, while he was living with his mom, Daniel was caught several times for vandalizing and breaking and entering.
"I was stealing things," recalls Daniel. "I goes into people's home and take fishing poles and lawn mowers and once a talking [electronic] fish."
His aunt and uncle, who both work for the state's prisons, had agreed to take temporary custody of Daniel, but they were reluctant to have the intrusion of an Intercept counselor. "When we got into this, we thought we could handle it ourselves. I was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of them coming in. But they have showed us things that we wouldn't have recognized on our own," says Nicky Jordan, who works as a gang leader at a boot camp for 18- to 35-year-olds and has raised two children of his own. "They suggested we make a daily schedule, setting up when he would brush his teeth and get dressed and what chores he should do when he gets home."
Since adopting the tactics the counselor recommended, Daniel's relatives have seen tremendous progress; his grades are in the high 90s, and he's midfielder on his soccer team. "We're starting to see the fruits of our labor. I believe that a failure would have occurred here without them," Jordan says. "There were days when we were ready to give up."
While more effective at stopping kids from recommitting crimes, home care doesn't impress many of the reformers, because they don't think it's real punishment. "For so many years we had people who wanted to coddle these kids...Only recently when kids have started to be held accountable have we seen crime go down," says Gaither when he hears about the Intercept program.
But for researchers like the American Youth Policy Forum's Mendel, the fact that a youth stays at home away from other troublemakers is exactly the point: minimizing youths' interaction with delinquent peers. "Roughly two-thirds of all dollars now spent on juvenile justice go to housing delinquent youths in institutional settings outside their family homes...The majority of the youths removed from their homes are not violent or chronic felony offenders. For far less money juvenile justice innovators have demonstrated that we can supervise these young offenders in the community, keep most of them crime-free and reduce the likelihood that they will offend again in the future," Mendel writes.
Carson's attempted rape victim, sobbing on the witness stand, showed a remarkable degree of concern for Carson. "I would like for Kendrick to be in a place where he can get counseling and be helped so that his life or these series of events that he's started be stopped," she said. "I don't want him to face a life like this, and I want him to be somewhere where he can be helped and not terrorize anyone else, but I very much want Kendrick to be helped."
Would Carson have been stopped from recommitting a crime if he had been helped at home?
Judge Gaither emphatically says no. "There's nothing anybody could have done with him. He must be a sociopath," he says when he recalls the facts of Carson's case and his most recent arrest.
Until he was arrested, Carson had never done anything to prompt authorities to throw him or his family into counseling.
At school, he earned B's and C's, and an IQ test at the juvenile facility gave him a score of 106, above average. The mother in Carson's home was not his natural mother. His birth mother was a drug addict, the father told juvenile authorities.
Several years before, Carson's father said, he had let Carson and his twin sister visit their mother in South Dallas. They had called within a few days to come home, appalled by the poverty.
Carson told a Dallas County juvenile department psychologist that his biological mother had never married his father but that they had lived together until he was 4. When his father left his mother, he took the twins and a year later married their stepmother. He said his father used to have an alcohol problem and would come home drunk and give him whippings with a belt or a stick, but he had stopped drinking when Carson was 9 or 10 and "turned his life around."
When Carson first left TYC, he entered a halfway house in Houston for six months and then an assisted living program in the same city. Kenneth Madison, a TYC official who monitors the assisted living program, would not talk specifically about Carson's case. But he said the juveniles in the program--which costs taxpayers $42 a day--live in subsidized apartments. They are required to work or prove they're looking for work. "The majority of them don't go home because their parents don't want them," Madison says. "We really don't know of any alternative for them." Twice daily, they are required to report to their supervisor, and they attend weekly therapy sessions.
Linda Perkins, the woman victimized by the boy's first break-in, remains friends with Carson's father. She learned from him that Carson was working at a fast-food restaurant and visited him, delivering him a package from his father and offering to drive him home from work. In her car, she says, "Kendrick was apologetic and remorseful."
"I hope you're not mad at me," Carson, now 18, told her. "I'm big now. I've grown up."
The woman was affected by what appeared to be Carson's new-found maturity. "He really seemed like he had learned something at TYC," Perkins says.
A few weeks later, Carson got arrested for auto theft.
The "devil was very busy" again, but this time Carson's probably on his way to the state pen.