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Make 'em Pay

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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."

Fighting the War

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.

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