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

Transfers aren't reserved for murder and rape charges alone. In Broward the state attorney's office considers transfer for any weapons-related offense (including theft of a weapon), burglary, drug sales, or escape from a residential placement ordered by a juvenile judge. Critics say prosecutors in Broward and around the state are overusing this power and transferring many kids who are not serious or habitual criminals. Even the American Correctional Association, the professional group for prison officials, recently recommended stripping prosecutors of the authority to transfer juveniles, or at the very least, limiting its use to cases of murder, rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault.

As a result of the 1994 law, Florida last year sent 4660 juveniles to adult courts. That's nearly a quarter of the national total, says Donna Bishop, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. There are currently 487 persons younger than age 18 in Florida state prisons, with a much larger number in county jails. No one tallies how many are in jails. But Broward County Jail alone is currently holding 95 boys and 5 girls. Last year 804 Florida juveniles were sentenced to adult prisons and jails.

State data show that juvenile felony cases have declined for the last three years, and misdemeanor cases also dipped last year. Yet the calls for getting tougher continue. "Every time you open the newspaper, there's a story about a violent juvenile with a long record," says Rep. Sandra Murman (R-Tampa), who unsuccessfully sponsored legislation this year to require that juveniles be automatically transferred on their fourth felony charge. She vows to return next year with another transfer bill. At the national level, Congressman Bill McCollum (R-Florida) has been pushing for several years to require all states to adopt a Florida-style system of expanded transfers. "There needs to be a stronger hammer on these kids to scare them from doing another crime," Murman insists. "If kids know they'll go to the adult system, the juvenile crime rate will go down. That's been proven."

But there is no evidence anywhere in the country to suggest that expanded transfers have caused the reduction in juvenile crime. Offense rates have dropped just as much in states without strong transfer provisions. Moreover, studies in Florida and other states show that youths transferred to the adult system subsequently commit more crimes than youths with similar offense records who remain in the juvenile system. Throughout Florida, for example, offenders who were transferred in 1987 had a 50 percent greater chance of being re-arrested within two years than those who stayed in the juvenile system, according to a 1997 study by Bishop and other researchers. Over a seven-year follow-up period, transferred youths were re-arrested significantly sooner and more often. Politicians who support transfer legislation are "legislating by notorious anecdote," says Bishop. "They are responding more to perception than reality."

Supporters of the transfer approach refuse to accept these research findings. "I'm not sure those researchers had access to all the information," says Susan Aramony, Broward's assistant state attorney in charge of the juvenile division. She's hoping that a new study commissioned by the state will provide a more favorable analysis.

Judge May argues that transferring kids to the adult system is often counterproductive. Adult judges frequently sentence juveniles to probation and time served, putting them back on the street quickly and without any treatment or educational help. "Kids sometimes ask me to transfer them because they know they'll just get probation," says May, an eight-year veteran of the juvenile court bench, who's widely considered a tough judge. In contrast, she often commits youth to an 18-month or even a three-year residential program.

Murman remains convinced that juvenile judges are too lenient. She advocates sending virtually all older felony offenders to the adult system and focusing the juvenile court's resources on younger delinquents. "If we get the 16- and 17-year-olds out of the juvenile system, we can get help right away for kids who are first-time offenders. Then we'll finally get a handle on juvenile crime."

Ironically, while politicians belittle the efficacy of the juvenile system, Florida in the last five years has greatly expanded and improved services in that system. The best of these programs have demonstrated a high success rate in reforming serious offenders: 70 percent of Last Chance Ranch graduates were offense-free during the three years they were tracked after leaving. Experts say the focus should be on making sure every salvageable boy and girl is as lucky as Percy Campbell and receives the treatment and educational help that could save him or her from a life of crime and punishment.

Campbell knows he was lucky. "They wanted to lock me up and bury the key," he notes, lounging on the sofa of his apartment on a recent Saturday morning, still groggy from the rare treat of sleeping late. "The judge was talking 60 years. I thought I was gone."

Crime was a family affair in Campbell's household. His mother was 15 years old when he was born. Eight years later she was sent to a Georgia prison for being an accessory to the murder of a jail guard. He lived with his grandmother and uncle, who he says encouraged him to steal. A church elder took him under his wing and helped him stay crime-free for a year, but then he was arrested on a burglary charge.

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