A Children's Crusade

South Florida prosecutors are going after kids younger than 12 years old in record numbers

Corrie Williams is only 12 years old, but he stands five feet, seven inches and weighs about 170 pounds. In addition to his temper, his large size contributes to the impression that he is dangerous. But a few minutes of conversation with him at his home clearly reveal that Corrie is still a child. He chews on his orange shirt, which matches the peeled mango he eats, as he delivers answers in short, often one-word, sentences. In the small apartment he shares with his mother, Jacqueline, in a poor section of Hallandale Beach, Corrie has his own room. A beach towel depicting 101 Dalmatians hangs on one wall; a pile of disorganized belongings topped with two little teddy bears, one brown and one cream, lies underneath. On Corrie's twin-size bed are the shell and inner wires of a PlayStation. "It needs a new part," Corrie says, "and we have to go to the store to get it." Then he tries to explain to a technologically challenged visitor what is wrong with the game, and the issue of electronics temporarily engages him to say more.

But soon Corrie is back to gazing at reruns of Moesha on the rabbit-eared television, which emits the only light in the heavily curtained apartment. The atmosphere is stifling as the window-unit air conditioner remains still.

Circuit Judge Robert Collins has seen "ridiculous" charges against youngsters increase during the 11 years he has presided over juvenile court
Joshua Prezant
Circuit Judge Robert Collins has seen "ridiculous" charges against youngsters increase during the 11 years he has presided over juvenile court
Senior assistant public defender Valerie Small Williams is shocked at the youth of many of her clients
Joshua Prezant
Senior assistant public defender Valerie Small Williams is shocked at the youth of many of her clients

Corrie was arrested this past April when he and a teacher got into an argument at McNicol Middle School in Hollywood. The teacher, Cisley Senghor, told officers responding to the scene that she had made Corrie pull up his trousers, which were hanging low to expose his underwear, according to a police report. When the boy hitched up his pants, a pager he had taken without permission from his mom dropped to the ground. The teacher picked it up and reminded Corrie that students were not allowed to carry beepers in school. Senghor said she'd hold the device until after class. Then, according to the police report, Corrie said "fuck you" to the teacher and grabbed her hand. When Senghor told him to let her go, he repeated the obscenity two more times, and the teacher "became in fear for her welfare," the report states. Officers arrived at the scene, as did Jacqueline Williams, Corrie's mother; Corrie was subsequently charged with battery on a school official, a felony. Like Jayjay, Corrie will likely spend months in court for a matter in which law enforcement would never have gotten involved years ago.

As Jacqueline Williams sits in the apartment's darkened living room wearing a black T-shirt and dark running shorts accentuated by a matching set of silver jewelry, she takes issue with the police report. She believes her son's claim that he didn't touch Senghor but simply grabbed the pager from the teacher's hand. Corrie knew his mother would have punished him if he had come home without it, Williams adds.

But Williams admits her son has worked with school counselors on curbing his anger. She gazes at nothing in particular as she shares her worries about Corrie. A single mother who has a teenage daughter back in her homeland of Trinidad, she says it's hard to raise the boy with no male role model for him to follow. "He does have a problem with his temper," Williams adds, her island accent resonating softly. "I try to tell him not to be so angry.... I think it's because he doesn't see his father."

Though Williams tries to stop her son from bullying smaller children, it's older kids who really worry her. "He has some friends who get into trouble; I'm afraid he will, too," she says, adding that she hopes to move her son to a better part of town.

Williams wants help for her son but doesn't think that dragging Corrie into court to face criminal charges is the best way to get it. When the boy appeared before a judge for the first time last month, he wore a dress shirt and dark slacks; his mother wore a cream ensemble suitable for church. Their carefully groomed appearance was notable since many other families had shown up in ragged attire. But Williams says getting to court is a chore: "I have no car.... It is hard."

Maria Schneider, head of the state attorney's juvenile division, looks no-nonsense in a perfectly pressed blue silk blouse, black-rimmed spectacles, and a shiny bob of dark hair. But there are moments, several of them, when the expression on her face softens and she talks about trying to do right by her young defendants. She laughs at stories of teenage boys playing wannabe gangsters, hitting on grown women while waiting for their cases to come up in court. After all, she has children of her own, ranging from middle school to college age.

In her pleasantly cluttered office, tucked in an out-of-the-way wing of the Broward County Courthouse, Schneider says she doesn't prosecute most first-time offenders or those who commit minor crimes -- that would be silly. Though ethics prevent her from addressing specific cases, Schneider says most juveniles her office prosecutes have a history of problems. Some, she adds, have failed to complete programs meant to keep them out of court.

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