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

In April he was arrested and charged with setting fire to a house owned by a man with whom he allegedly had a dispute. The man was inside and suffered horrible burns. Prosecutors immediately transferred the arson case to adult court. The man later died, and a grand jury indicted Pierre for murder. If convicted he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Pierre sent plenty of prior warning signals. Over the past three years, he had accumulated at least a dozen juvenile charges, mostly property and drug offenses. But the juvenile court never placed him in residential treatment.

Living with his mother and three younger brothers in a ramshackle apartment off Sistrunk Boulevard, he sold drugs to buy groceries for the family, according to neighbors. His mother, who says she's disabled and can't work, was raising her sons on welfare and food stamps until those benefits were cut off nine months ago. Most days she sits or sleeps on a lounger in the shade of the courtyard. "I wanted them to send Hilbert to a program, but the program said he isn't bad enough," his mother says in broken English. Juvenile court records are confidential, so it was impossible to confirm details of his legal history.

"Like a lot of kids, he was transferred to the adult system before he even got a chance to take advantage of a juvenile treatment program," says Greg Lewen, a specially appointed public defender who represented Pierre at several detention hearings.

One reason Pierre and many other kids don't get help is a legal loophole that allows them to slip out of the system before a juvenile court judge can deal with them. After being arrested, they can be held for up to three weeks in a juvenile lockup. But prosecutors often fail to present formal charges against them during those three weeks. The juveniles are released, and there's no guarantee they'll show up for their court hearing. If they don't show, judges are unable to order supervision or treatment.

These youth are also prone to reoffending while on the lam, then being slammed into the adult system when they are finally picked up, Lewen says. That's why he and Nova's Frank Orlando drafted legislation, introduced this year by Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac), that would have required prosecutors to file juvenile charges within ten days of arrest. Despite police support the bill died because of opposition from the state attorneys in Broward and Palm Beach counties, who complained that it would increase their workload and result in kids being inappropriately released.

"Any kid who enters the juvenile system deserves one of the good programs," Lewen says. "Then if he screws up, there really is justification for the public to be mad. But right now the state is failing terribly. Instead of questioning why the juvenile system isn't more effective, the focus is being changed to, 'Maybe transferring the kid to the adult system is better.' Frankly, that's a lie."

One Saturday morning last month, Celina Pierre, wearing her Sunday-best white bonnet and black dress, arrived after a two-hour trip by foot and bus to visit her son at the county jail. She waited patiently in the lobby for an hour, then was ushered in to see Hilbert in a narrow, drab concrete-block cubicle. Separated by thick glass, they spoke by telephone. Soon she began chanting in Creole and singing hymns in a sweet plaintive voice, oblivious to the other visitors just a few feet away. The boy sat silently, staring wistfully at his mother.

Unlike Pierre, 14-year-old Jeffrey Dubea of Davie has a mother who aggressively sought services from the juvenile court for her son. But Dubea hasn't gotten any more help than Pierre. That's partly his fault. But it's also the result of an overburdened system.

Dubea is a skinny, fidgety, mop-haired kid who, according to his mother Denise, fell in with the wrong crowd last year. Although he's smart and tests well, he has drug abuse problems and perhaps some mental health issues, including attention deficit disorder. When he was a baby, both his parents abused drugs and were sentenced to prison. He spent a year in foster care. His father, who's divorced from his mother, is still behind bars. The teenager talks eagerly about seeing him when his dad gets out later this year.

Starting last spring, when he was 12 years old, Dubea participated in a string of serious crimes -- an armed robbery, a burglary, and an auto theft, according to his mother. He was arrested for each of those charges, was detained for 21 days each time, was released, and failed to show up for subsequent hearings. Finally, last month, the police caught up with him and arrested him for his failures to appear in court.

At a hearing last month at the Broward courthouse, Juvenile Court Judge Robert Collins belatedly pressed Dubea's probation officer, Angel Amador, to get him into a treatment program quickly. "I'll do my best, but I can't make any promises," Amador said.

Since 1994 the Florida legislature has significantly boosted funding for juvenile commitment programs and created a new agency, the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), to take over juvenile rehabilitation. Before then, there was a critical shortage of intensive residential treatment. But while programs have mushroomed, so has the number of commitments of juveniles to both residential and nonresidential programs. The number of commitments has outstripped available beds.

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