Catching young criminals before they are lost

The first child up on the afternoon docket is all of 12, with long eyelashes and traces of baby fat. "Nine, 10, 11 …" says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan, adding up not his age but the charges against him.

She peers down: How did this kid, not yet a teenager, even know how to drive?

"My grandfather," the boy says, though surely grand theft auto was not what the grandfather had in mind. A burly Department of Juvenile Justice officer reaches to straighten the collar of the boy's jail uniform. It's tan, a color that means he hasn't been swallowed by the adult system, at least not yet.

On this same day, we woke to find the face of another kid staring out from the front page. Nick Lindsey, 16, is accused of gunning down St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford during a routine call about a prowler. It's hard to grasp the utter waste of a good cop's life, and the life of a teenager thrown away. In the photo, the boy looks too young and very old.

Lindsey traveled this same juvenile justice system, with some defendants so small they roll up their jail pants so they don't trip as they shuffle along, chained hand and foot. Judge Sheehan has been assigned here only 31/2 weeks, but already she's seen what's frustrated Florida's juvenile judges for decades.

Children who don't pass middle school math but expertly tally points on their criminal score sheets and predict the date they'll be back on the street. Parents who won't show without the threat of criminal contempt. A system that hasn't figured out how to intervene with equal parts support and discipline when these defendants are still young enough to reach. A do-less-with-more economy in a system already stretched past its limits.

The public defender wants the boy sent home. The mother, just out of jail herself, says there's no place for his "sticky fingers." The boy says he just wants to see his younger sister again. The judge opts for a live-in program. She asks that the sister be allowed to visit.

"Someone needs to grab ahold of you and get you moving in the right direction," she tells him. "Hopefully, someday you'll be 18 and say, 'Wow, I was a stupid young kid then.' "

Here's the question you'll hear: Why bother?

If saving a kid isn't enough, well, there's public safety. There's stopping petty crimes from becoming violent ones. There's the fact that housing just one of the 36,992 inmates sent to prison last year costs us an average of $19,469 a year.

The last person on her docket this day is 17. Like Nick Lindsey, he had not been charged with violence before this, before the gun.

With Lindsey, it was stealing cars. This teenager repeatedly trespassed and got in minor scrapes — until January, when police say he and a friend walked up to a man, put a gun to his head and robbed him.

This time, he wears fluorescent orange and the words Hillsborough County Jail stamped across his back, the color of the big time. Next stop: adult court and the very real possibility of state prison. The street tough is gone. He looks miserable. He looks young.

"I don't know who's to blame here," the judge says. The system for not stepping in sooner? The boy for failing himself? There is enough to go around.

"Good luck to you," she says, because what else is there, and the bailiff takes him away.

Catching young criminals before they are lost 02/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 10:54am]

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