By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It doesn't look or feel like a correctional facility. There is no security fence, checkpoint, or barbed wire. But there is constant supervision by staff, and just two youths have escaped in the last four years. Unlike that of a prison, the atmosphere between the mostly black and Hispanic residents and the racially mixed staff here is one of trust, respect, and affection.
The state's rising number of commitments and shortage of beds have kept the Last Chance Ranch busy -- too busy. DJJ pays the ranch for 19 kids at any one time, but it often serves 23 with no extra payment. There is a waiting list of three to four months to get in, which means that kids often have to wait in an adult jail or juvenile detention center. And the ranch can now keep a kid in the program for only a year, rather than the previous 18 months, unless it gets special permission from the DJJ. "Time will tell if the shorter stays are working," says Culverhouse, looking skeptical.
The ranch uses a classic reward-punishment regimen to change behavior and attitudes. If residents meet work, classroom, and conduct goals set by themselves and staff, they move into more comfortable quarters and gain privileges, like going on field trips. They're kept busy around the clock with school; tending the vineyards and vegetable gardens; caring for farm animals; learning auto mechanics, carpentry, and food-handling; and undertaking community projects such as maintaining the local cemetery.
Performance expectations are high. One day last month, half a dozen young men returned exhausted from a day in the blazing sun digging holes for 40 fence posts. The crew leader congratulated them on their work. But Crenshaw, a towering black man, met them back at the classroom and chastised them for moving too slowly. "I'm telling you guys, pick up the pace. When you need to be someplace, get up and go." Later he explains: "My thing is teaching kids. They don't get tired of it, either. They're not used to getting much attention, especially from adult men."
The key is gaining a kid's trust and showing him he can be successful at something other than crime and misbehavior, says Culverhouse. Empathy helps, too. "Sometimes a kid acts out, and you think he's just mean," he says. "But you wouldn't believe the reasons." He recalls one kid who had a tantrum over sharing his birthday cake. Culverhouse punished him by making him dig up tree stumps. He later found out that the teenager had never had a birthday party or cake in his entire life. "I felt so bad that from that time on, I ordered one cake for every birthday kid, and a separate cake for everyone else."
Group counseling helps kids gain insight into their angry behavior. After a hard day digging fence post holes, six boys gather in the wood shop for a session led by "Coach" Al Yarborough, who also teaches animal husbandry. The evening's co-leader is Wilson, who guides his fellow residents through a discussion of the "problem of the day." The mood starts out tense. Wilson listens intently as each boy speaks in turn. He's learned exactly when to ask a question and when to call on someone else. The boys bring up conflicts with staff and other residents mainly over little things like chores, lights-out rules, and who tore up whose artwork. These start out as angry diatribes but gradually soften into comic reenactments. Everyone ends up laughing except Coach, who does his best to keep a straight face.
Wilson says that when Judge Schapiro sentenced him to Last Chance Ranch in 1997, he was shocked and angry because it was his first offense, and he thought he should have been sent home on probation. Now his feelings have changed. He looks forward to working every Saturday on Coach's nearby ranch. "Coach is always there for me," Wilson says. He's also discovered new talents, like cooking. He's taking college correspondence courses and hopes to attend the University of Florida, where he'd like to prepare to study medicine or law. "When I get back home, I'm going to thank Judge Schapiro. This wasn't a punishment. It was a blessing."
Supporters of transfer to adult court like Aramony, Broward's chief juvenile prosecutor, argue that the ranch is effective because residents know that they'll be sent to an adult prison if they don't cooperate. The ranch staff and the residents disagree among themselves about this. Crenshaw concurs that he can work better with kids who have the "hammer" of an adult sentence hanging over them. Wilson and other residents admit that their stay in jail before coming to the ranch shook them up. But Culverhouse is skeptical. "Fear isn't the way to motivate them," he says. "Kids change because they want to."
With its small size and staff-to-resident ratio of one to one, the ranch isn't cheap. The cost per kid who completed the program last year was $59,066, according to the state, compared with an average cost of $45,957 for all programs serving comparably serious offenders. But Judge May thinks the ranch is worth the extra cost because it keeps many kids from graduating to a career of crime and saves society the eventual cost of incarcerating them. "We either pay now and pay less, or pay later and pay more," she says.
As sunset falls, Wilson leans against a corral fence, gazing at the horizon and at a palomino mare prancing by. "She's the leader," he says. "She hasn't been ridden in a long time. I really want to ride that horse."
Before Percy Campbell graduated from Last Chance Ranch last July, the staff held a funeral for the name "Crime Boy," complete with a grave and wooden cross. "We buried his past, so that the stigma doesn't follow him anymore," Culverhouse says.
But the past isn't that easy to shake. Campbell is lonely and misses his family. He frequently talks by phone with his mother, who calls from prison. He stays in close touch with his younger brother Frederick in Fort Lauderdale, as well as his old girlfriend and his four-year-old daughter. "My family, I need them," he says. "I feel like a spirit walking the earth alone."
That worries his probation officer and his mentors, who fear that he might impulsively decide to go back to Fort Lauderdale and expose himself to the bad old influences. "I think he'd be better off not coming back here, because it's been a long time since he had anything negative in his life," says Roback, his former teacher. "But no one can tell him which way to go. You hope he'll make the right decision. He's been working too hard to go backwards."
A lot of people are keeping their fingers crossed, seeing him, perhaps unfairly, as a test of the juvenile rehabilitation model. If Campbell relapses into crime, critics almost certainly will cite his case as proof that punishment in adult prison is the only solution for serious juvenile offenders. Even Judge May, a staunch defender of keeping most kids in the juvenile system, is on the fence about the former Crime Boy's chances. "If he can keep himself out of trouble, he's an example of what can be done, given sufficient resources," she says. "If he can't, then he shows that you really can't fix things if they are bad enough."
Campbell insists that if he moves back to the old 'hood, he can make good decisions for himself and won't be pulled back into crime. He's annoyed with all the handwringing about his future. "It's the same thing as before, 'Will he do right or will he do wrong?' I feel torn between what I want and what everyone else expects, which is a 100 percent angel. I'm human, so you have to take 50 percent off."
Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: Harris_Meyer@newtimesbpb.com