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

Despite all his offenses before being transferred to the adult system, the juvenile court never sent him to a long-term residential treatment program. "It was unbelievable back then how insufficient the resources were," says May, who recalls that most placements lasted only three months. "If more was available for Percy, he wouldn't have graduated to so many offenses."

What saved Campbell was his uncanny ability to attract adult mentors. Adult court judges have the option to send transferred youth back to the juvenile system for treatment, but they seldom do. Campbell's many advocates convinced a reluctant Judge Carney to send him to Last Chance Ranch. Just to be sure, Carney sentenced him to three years at the ranch plus ten years' probation. Other kids sent to the ranch spend no more than 18 months there, and many go home after 10.

"There has always been something special about Percy," says Lynne Roback, a friend and mentor since she taught him in her sixth-grade class. "He draws people in. He's very intuitive. He says things you don't expect from a child. What's frightening is that most of the time he's right."

At Last Chance Ranch, he was a tough case, even for a place that specializes in tough cases. After a lifetime of being exploited and lied to by adults, he didn't trust anyone and refused to go along with the program. Plus, his notoriety as Crime Boy had gone to his head. "He was arrogant when he got here," recalls Lamar Crenshaw, the ranch's program manager. Crenshaw frequently assigned him the ranch's harshest disciplinary detail -- pulling up tree stumps.

Campbell eventually bonded with one counselor who got him into weightlifting and with another, Al Milligan, who served as his adviser through the three years he was there. "Al, he's my boy, he was like a father to me," Campbell says. "He was there when I needed him and when I didn't need him." Campbell went on to win the World Natural Power Lifting Federation championship four times in his age and weight class. A natural leader among the boys at the ranch, he became a symbol of the success of the program -- and a poster boy for juvenile rehabilitation.

Campbell currently is on probationary house arrest, meaning he can leave home only to go to approved places and must return by 8 p.m. curfew. During the week he's up early to bicycle to work at the local hospital. He takes a midday break to work out at the gym. Then he goes to class to bone up for the GED test, which he failed this spring but plans to retake soon. His probation officer and the Last Chance Ranch staff call every night to check up. "I miss the people at the ranch," he says. "But inside [the ranch] you have to follow every last step, when to get out of bed, when to go work in the heat. I don't miss that."

He gingerly rubs a large white scab on the massive tricep muscle of his right arm. When he was seven years old, he had the words Fuck It tattooed there. The ranch staff recently arranged to have a doctor cut the tattoo out. He only succeeded, however, in rendering the U and C illegible. Campbell probably will be left with an ugly scar. But he seems pleased anyway.

"Percy had become very embarrassed about the tattoo," says Johnson, his probation officer. "That's a good sign. It shows that he's worried now about how others perceive him."

If and when Campbell gets his GED, he wants to attend one of several colleges trying to recruit him for football and track. Although he has never played organized sports, the staff at Last Chance Ranch marvel at his speed, strength, and jumping ability. "I was always running when I was a kid," he explains with a smile. "The best teachers were the boys in blue, chasing me." His fallback is to buy his own gym, work to become Mr. Universe in bodybuilding, and train other bodybuilders. He's also considering counseling kids.

How sure is he that he'll get his GED and be able to move on with his life? "Eighty-nine percent. I don't feel like I got something until I got it. I don't like to jump the gun, because it leaves room for chagrin," he says.

"Percy is living proof that every person has the potential to straighten out his life, if you find the right program for him," Johnson says. "The guy you think you need to incarcerate could turn out like Percy and do the right thing. Unfortunately, not everyone is given that chance."

Take, for example, Hilbert Pierre. One morning last month, the 14-year-old sat handcuffed and alone in the corner of Judge Sheldon Schapiro's adult criminal courtroom in the Broward County courthouse. "Do you understand that you face a charge of first-degree murder?" the judge asked him.

He murmured "Yes," and the judge appointed a special public defender to represent him. Pierre had no family member or friend present. His Haitian-born mother, Celina, is illiterate and speaks little English. She didn't know about the hearing. While he awaits trial, Pierre is being held without bond in the county jail adjacent to the courthouse, in a section for juveniles.

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