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

Florida currently has 5564 residential and 3469 nonresidential slots for youths, according to DJJ figures. Spaces have doubled since 1994. Spending has soared as well. The DJJ spent $233 million on residential programs this year, up from $46 million in 1990. But the annual number of commitments ordered by judges has jumped 39 percent from 1994 to 1998, reaching 11,207 last year. As a result 756 committed youths are currently awaiting placement in one of the state's 167 residential programs, and 275 youths are waiting for nonresidential placements. That's more than double the number on the waiting list in 1994, when the law expanding the number of beds was passed.

The whole system has gotten tougher on kids, and judges are committing more of them, says Ted Tollett, DJJ'S chief researcher. While his agency is opening facilities as fast as it can, he notes, the number and length of commitments are rising so quickly that "it's a constant game of catch-up." Nova's Orlando argues that judges are committing too many juveniles who could be better and more inexpensively served in nonresidential programs.

There's a particular shortage of specialized programs for kids like Dubea with drug and mental health problems, which has resulted in months-long waiting lists. To tide them over, these youth are often placed in programs that lack the particular services they need, says Darryl Olson, interim manager of DJJ's Broward district.

Then there's the problem of probation officers having too many cases. Until just before the hearing, Amador wasn't even aware that Dubea had been charged with a new offense. He currently has 120 juveniles under his supervision, which is four times the recommended number. On average, probation officers in Broward are handling 50 cases, nearly double the ideal load, Olson says. Broward and other counties desperately need more officers. But the legislature recently turned down the department's funding request for added slots, including a 50 percent increase for Broward.

Amador says he's been working for months to get Dubea an appropriate placement but has been frustrated by both the waiting lists and the kid's lack of cooperation. Last month, for instance, Dubea ran away from a temporary shelter where he was staying pending placement at a residential drug-treatment program. Amador has finally arranged for Dubea to enter the Broward Group Treatment Home For Boys in Davie this month. "Jeffrey is a difficult case," he acknowledges.

Dubea just turned 14 years old, making him eligible for transfer to adult court. Two of his teenage codefendants in the armed robbery case have already been transferred. If Dubea doesn't get help soon and commits a new offense, Judge May, who was handling one of his cases, warned him that he'll be sent to adult court, too. Dubea admits he's afraid of receiving "serious time" in the adult system but remains resistant to help. "I don't want to be in any programs," he says, in his usual staccato delivery. "I just want to go home."

His mother won't take him home. "He's a good kid, but he's a handful," she says. "I've been asking for the court's help for more than a year with no luck. Jeffrey's at the age where if I don't do something now, he's going to end up shot, overdosed, or growing up in jails. I don't want that."

When Percy Campbell arrived at Last Chance Ranch in 1995, he was resistant, too. Like every other greenhorn, he was taken out of the police van, uncuffed and unshackled, and led through the woods to the orientation camp, a small cabin in a clearing. He spent several days in this primitive camp to learn the rules and work requirements. "We hike the kids in, teach them to pull their pants up, say 'Yes sir' and 'No sir,' and get up and go to work," drawls James Culverhouse, the portly, plainspoken executive director. It took almost four months of hard work to break through to Campbell, but he eventually bought into the program and blossomed.

So did Irving Woodrow Wilson, an 18-year-old from Pompano Beach sent to the ranch last November for armed carjacking -- his first charge. When he arrived, Wilson, who's black, was worried because he'd heard rumors during his yearlong stay at the Broward County Jail that rednecks, gators, and snakes at the ranch posed a constant danger. He'd never been out of the city before. "None of the rumors were true," he says, laughing. Now he loves the rural life and has grown so fond of the hogs that he's stopped eating pork.

"Most of these kids ain't seen nothin' but asphalt and haven't had a lick of work before," says Culverhouse, who started working at the ranch in 1983. He used to run a nearby gas station and got to know the staff and kids when they'd stop by for a fill-up. Having grown up as a tough kid without a father, he immediately identified with the camp residents. "The job helped settle down my wildness," he says. "Now you couldn't run me off this place."

The ranch is a collection of barracks, trailers, corrals, and pasture land on 212 acres in the middle of nowhere. It's operated by the nonprofit, Tampa-based Associated Marine Institute, which started out in Broward County and now has juvenile facilities all over the country. The ranch works with some of the toughest juvenile offenders in the state, mostly youth from Broward and Miami-Dade counties convicted of violent felonies, such as armed robbery. It doesn't accept kids who have killed or raped.

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