The Redemption of Crime Boy

Former criminal-in-training Percy Campbell reclaimed his life and now illuminates a better way to handle hard-core juvenile delinquency

Seven years ago, when Percy Campbell was still running the streets of Fort Lauderdale as the notorious Crime Boy, he stole a car when he needed transportation. The skinny youth piled up an astonishing 57 criminal charges by age 12, including armed robbery. In 1993 he was tagged "Crime Boy" by the news media, and overnight, became a living symbol of the youthful predators roaming the streets of American cities and committing violent crimes. Network TV news shows such as Today and 48 Hours profiled him. He was invited to participate in a debate on the Montel Williams Show, and his foul language had to be bleeped out.

But on a recent Saturday morning, Campbell, who is soon to turn 19, waited eagerly for a ride from his one-bedroom apartment in tiny Arcadia, near Lake Okeechobee, to St. Petersburg, where he was to pick up a used car. "It's my first legal car," Campbell says, with a rueful smile. He plans to use it to visit his friends and mentors at the Last Chance Ranch, the juvenile rehabilitation program from which he graduated last year. Previously he had to ride his bike -- a distance of 47 miles in the tropical sun.

According to everyone who knows him, Campbell is a changed young man since he arrived at the Last Chance, a work-school program for juvenile felony offenders, in 1995. "I wasn't no vicious person back then," he says, in a soft drawl. "But anyone who pushes a cat in a corner..." His voice trails off. "I finally said to myself, 'Lookee here, I need to try something different, put on a new suit and clean up.' And I did. I always knew how, but I just never did it." If Campbell looks menacing these days -- he's 190 pounds of chiseled muscle -- that's mostly because he's a champion at weightlifting, a pursuit he picked up at the Ranch.

Campbell seems to have learned a wealth of lessons since Broward County Juvenile Court Judge Melanie May decided in 1994 that the 14-year-old was a danger to society and sent him to adult criminal court. Judge Robert Carney, on the verge of sentencing him to a long stint in adult prison, relented and gave him one last chance to reform himself. Campbell was sentenced to three years at the ranch, formally known as the Florida Environmental Institute.

Since graduating last July, he's done well in his job as janitor at a local hospital, studied hard for his GED test, and stayed far from trouble. While those who work with habitual juvenile offenders caution that there is no sure thing in their business, his probation officer says he would be extremely surprised if Campbell returned to his old criminal ways. "He's very self-disciplined and motivated," says Jeffrey Johnson. "I don't anticipate him having any problems."

But Florida politicians and prosecutors don't seem as open to reforming as Campbell has been. Intent on proving to voters how tough they are on crime, they insist that youth like him are lost causes who can't benefit from rehabilitation in juvenile programs. They argue that boys and girls charged with felonies, even first-time offenders, should be processed as adults and locked up in adult prisons.

Many juvenile-crime experts say this is deeply misguided policy. "There are a lot of Percys sitting in prison now because they weren't fortunate enough to have a judge or prosecutor who gave them one last chance in a good program," says Frank Orlando, a Broward juvenile judge for almost 20 years who now directs youth policy studies at Nova Southeastern University's law school. "The public is being misled. There are plenty of juvenile programs that could offer those kids ten times more help than they get in the adult system. But prosecutors are taking those kids out of the juvenile system."

Orlando warns that society suffers -- and pays more -- in the long run if a youth who could have been turned around early is sent to prison and emerges as a harder, savvier criminal. Campbell puts it more ominously. "What do you do when he gets out? He's in the same situation as when he went in. It may be you he takes out next."

One hundred years ago, the first juvenile court in the nation was created in Chicago, in reaction to the abuse of children in the adult criminal system. The founders believed that children and adolescents were fundamentally different from adults and that they needed a separate court system -- offering paternalistic guidance and social services rather than punishment -- to steer them from crime. By 1925, juvenile courts had been established by counties in 48 states and in the District of Columbia. Broward County did so in about 1950.

Florida was considered a national leader in juvenile rehabilitation as recently as 1990, when it passed a bill to expand treatment programs for young offenders. But attitudes hardened in the early '90s, as a result of rising juvenile-crime rates and several internationally publicized murders of foreign tourists by juveniles. It was in this atmosphere that Crime Boy rose to prominence.

All this prompted the Florida legislature in 1994 to pass the most radical law in the country, one that gave prosecutors broad discretion to bypass the juvenile court and send kids as young as 14 years old directly to adult courts. The theory was that kids would be less likely to commit crimes if they knew they faced "swift and sure" punishment in adult facilities. Florida now allows prosecutors to transfer to adult court any 16- or 17-year-old charged with a felony, as well as 14- and 15-year-olds accused of more-serious felonies -- even if the youth has never been arrested previously.

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