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Let's organize to help save The Kid

The Kid was nervous, as any grand jury witness might have been, and he was a little bit fearful. He didn't have any particularly useful information regarding the violent crime that had taken place near his apartment. But suppose the perpetrators thought he did. What might they do if they learned he'd come before a grand jury?

I call him The Kid for a couple of reasons. The first is that "he" was a witness (or an off-stage suspect) before the grand jury on which I recently served and is, by law and ordinary decency, entitled to anonymity. The second is that "he" is not a real person at all, but a composite of several people. "He" has stayed on my mind _ not because of his nervousness and fear but because my own nagging thought: There's a very good chance The Kid won't make it.

My pessimism has nothing to do with any failings of The Kid himself. He might be Young Mr. Perfect, for all I know. But when I heard where he lived, how tough things were for his family, what he did with his spare time, I found my mind racing toward a negative prognosis that left me ashamed and frightened.

Ashamed because I was doing what I accuse racists of doing: looking on a person's outward circumstances and drawing negative conclusions about his potential; frightened by the thought that I might be right.

The thing that kept coming at me during five weeks of grand jury service was how "normal" most of the witnesses and suspects must have been at some earlier time in their lives, how ordinary some of them still seem to be, and how inexorable seems the process that threatens to disconnect them from ordinary life.

Many of the young people whose cases we heard, or who were subpoenaed to testify before us, are manifestly victims of circumstances over which they have imperfect control. They are from parts of town where joining a gang (or a gang-like group) is as much a matter of self-defense as of criminal intent, from neighborhoods where schools are weak, encouragement sporadic and families empty of hope _ where temptation to crime is a constant and where opportunity, though it exists, wears a nearly impenetrable disguise.

I embarked on grand jury service with the hope that I might be able to slow the process at least a little for at least a few. I left it knowing that by the time they are that deeply involved with "the system," it's too late for many of them.

But why should that surprise me? It's what I've been hearing for the better part of a career. Judges would like to do more to help straighten young people out, but by the time the youngsters come to court, it's too late. Colleges would like to do a better job, but the public schools have made the task too difficult. High school teachers would tighten standards, but the elementary schools have wrought too much damage. Even kindergarten teachers tell me about the children they get too late _ because the homes they come from aren't conducive to learning.

But, if every point is too late, isn't that just another way of saying these young people are hopeless and might as well be left to their fate?

Maybe not. Many youngsters who may be too late to be rescued by "the system" _ that is, by public officials and governmental institutions _ may still have their lives transformed by those whose motivation is personal, not institutional.

That is why some of us remain cautiously optimistic about so-called faith-based initiatives. People who are driven by religious belief are often able to transform lives because their spirituality can reach where government can't _ and shouldn't. It may be that the children I worry about are reachable only at this deeper, spiritual level.

But it isn't just faith-based efforts that are needed. What seems increasingly clear to me is that the sort of rescue I'm thinking of requires the intervention not merely of institutions, but of people _ of us. A lot of us. A movement of us.

Try this analogy. We recognize that it's the job of the sanitation department, the parks department and the bureau of public works to keep our cities clean and safe. But sometimes we are confronted with a mess so ugly and so dangerous to the public health, that we take the extraordinary step of organizing ourselves to clean it up.

The Kid is in trouble, and he's a danger to our health and our future. We need to get organized.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group