little criminals

Interview with Terry Starr
Contra Costa County Probation Chief


Q: Tell me how long you've been working with juveniles...

Starr: I started working with juveniles [since] right out of college. My first job after I graduated was at a juvenile hall in San Diego. And I think like a lot of people in this field, I just wandered into it. I mean, I really had no intention of sticking with it. I actually thought I was going to be a stockbroker, make a lot of money. But I found out I was good at it and I liked it and so I stuck with it.

Q: Why do you like working with juveniles?

Starr: Well, it's different every day. I think it's something that you either like and you're good at, or you don't like and you're not good at. I'm really patient with people. I'm not patient with things, and I've always kind of particularly liked working with kids, just because I think there are so many times when there is one person that makes a difference in a kid's life. I get, every once in awhile, letters or calls from people. I got a call a couple of weeks ago from a kid that I had honestly forgotten I'd worked with 25 years ago, and he was writing a paper in his college class on what affected his life. He sent me a copy of it; I had no idea. But I was there at a time when, you know, he was really having a tough time. He had no father, and the whole business. So I mean, that was 20, 25 years ago. So, there are some rewards for that.

Q: Have kids changed over the years that you have been dealing with them? And if so, how?

Starr: I think everything has just changed so much, it's almost impossible to relate to even 30 years ago. When I started out it was really very rare to find youngsters who had committed real acts of violence. I mean, in San Diego Juvenile Hall the first few years I was there, I don't ever recall a kid on a murder charge. When I left there in 1990, we had 18 or 19 kids awaiting murder charges down in San Diego Juvenile Hall, so they've changed dramatically. And drugs have changed the world. We're losing a whole generation of kids to methamphetamines and some of these other crazy drugs and then,

I think the whole family thing has changed, to the point where we now have people who take no responsibility and don't even think about any responsibility before they make decisions about kids. I mean, maybe the decision is made for them in a moment of passion, but once that decision is made, there are an awful lot of people who still don't take any responsibility. So, yeah, I think things have changed dramatically, and not necessarily for the better, certainly.

Q: What's the youngest kid that you've dealt with prior to this case?

Starr: I think I had a kid who was 7 in San Diego who was an arsonist. He was an interesting kid--when he'd get mad at his mother, he would set fire to all of her clothes, and they lived in an apartment house, so he set fire to this closet, and almost burned the apartment house up, so the other tenants were not amused. And then he had burned up his mother's boyfriend's Cadillac convertible, so the mother's boyfriend wasn't amused. And I think we had him for a few months because he was real tough to place because he was really active as a fire setter. But usually we don't see kids until they're about 12, quite frankly. That's usually as soon as we see them.

Q: So this case of the 6-year-old was totally unique in your experience?

Terry Starr: I think it was. It was unique because of the young age and it was unique because I think we treated it differently than we might have treated it five or ten years ago. I mean, I think we've become a little more legalistic. We've become a little more concerned with holding even young kids accountable for the things they do. So it was a unique experience and one I don't want to repeat.

Q: Why is that?

Starr: Well, my experience with this thing has been that this whole thing got cranked up, and kind of had a life of its own because of the media attention to it. I mean, we had media from all over the world here, focusing in on this. And you know, it's not a good thing. I think it diverted the focus from what was best for this kid for a period of time.

On the other hand, I think some real positives came out of this, particularly for this youngster. Because his stay at [juvenile] hall, I think, was a productive one in terms of giving him some structure, allowing him to see that there are rules. He learned to get along with other kids. He bonded with some staff members. I mean, he was on a regular routine, maybe for the first time in his life. And I think that that really has gone a long way in helping him adjust to the setting he's in now, where I understand he's doing quite well.

Q: I just want to back up a little bit. Can you tell me how you first heard about this case, and what your reaction was?

Starr: I don't know whether I heard about it first from the news media, or whether I got a call from the Richmond Police Department. But when I first really did get involved, it was a call from the Richmond Police Department. They suggested that they were going to have a press conference that afternoon to discuss this and thought I might want to be there since the boy was going to be in juvenile hall and since we were going to have some responsibility for him. So I did go, and I was filled in on what the details were. And then they went from there.

Q: When you were filled in about the details of what happened, what was your reaction?

Starr: Well, I mean you're always shocked, when something like this occurs, and I was really concerned at first that there not be some kind of a community backlash. I was really very much concerned about what might happen in the community based on the feelings that were there. And then I was concerned about what in the world we were going to do with this youngster. I mean, at age 6, it presented some really unique problems for the juvenile hall staff.

But I felt that the court made the very right decision of keeping the youngster here because I was concerned also about his welfare and safety. I mean, I had some bizarre calls during those first few days from people who were asking me questions like, "You know, why can't we just do to him what he did to this little kid?" I don't know, dumb questions. And it shows you there's a whole range of strange people out there, some of whom, they're probably not dangerous, but who knows?

So I was concerned about him. And then, as the thing went on, it became obvious that the juvenile hall staff were going to be able to cope with this, and did very well. And that it wasn't going to cause a big problem for the other kids in the hall, for this youngster, or for the juvenile hall staff.

Q: You mentioned, though, that it did create a problem for you and your staff. Can you tell me what those problems were? Or what you feared the problems might be at the outset? What were your concerns about suddenly having a 6-year-old in juvenile hall?

Starr: The first thing you think about is protecting him from other kids and one thing and another, but he was a real feisty little guy and [the] staff and he developed a relationship right away. And the one nice thing about a juvenile hall setting is that we have the responsibility of totally supervising kids 24 hours a day. So I wasn't really worried ... about him getting hurt. I was more worried about something from the outside happening. And that, I think, was primarily because of the media frenzy that was involved. I had 35 calls from the media one day. And some of them were legit calls and some of them were people that asked moronic questions. I had one reporter ask me, "What did he have for breakfast this morning?" And so I told her, "We gave him bread and water, like we always do." She actually believed me for a couple minutes. Fortunately, I think the biggest thing that occurred that soothed the waters out there, was the way the family of the victim responded to this. I mean, right away, they were concerned about this little kid, and said, "We don't want anything to happen to him." And so I think that took a lot of the anger out, just the way they responded to it. They were very classy, I thought.

Q: Can you tell me about the unit that he was placed in--how many other kids were there, how old they were?

Starr: He was in a unit with 19 other kids. He had his own room. Kids ranged in age from 12 to 15. They were, and are lightweight kids. They weren't kids that had violence offenses. They were kids who were in for a variety of things that generally have to do with property offenses. And we put him right next to the counseling station, and we were always very aware of where he was. The school put in a special program for him, which you would expect, since he's a kindergartner, first grader. And so that all went fairly well.

And one thing about a juvenile hall setting is the program goes 24 hours a day and you can leave here and come back in ten years and the same thing is going to be happening at the same time. So it isn't as though we had to make a lot of adjustments on that basis, because we didn't.

It was mostly making sure that we knew where he was, and [that] he had some needs that other kids didn't have. The first day he was here, he and the twins both wanted to know where the toys were. So, it was maybe making adjustments that way. But the kids, actually, were real good with him. We never had a concern for his safety here. Some of the kids acted like big brothers to him, and certainly the staff took to him right away. He's a very engaging little kid, really.

Q: Can you tell me, did he ever show any signs of violence or temper when he was there?

Starr: Well, I mean, he's real active. And I think that he's got a temper. He's used to defending himself. He is used to settling things a different way, maybe, than the average 6-year-old was. But, because he was so much younger here, there really wasn't an issue with that. And, again, you know, staff were always aware of everything that was going on with him. He had a couple staff members that he really did bond with and whenever you saw them, you saw him. So it wasn't ... that really never was an issue for us.

Q: Did you like him? And why?

Starr: Did I like him? Yeah. Because for us, I mean, any kid that walks in here, you may not like what they've done. But generally what you find out is, they're just kids. And they act like kids and they've got senses of humors and tempers and some things about them are likeable and some aren't. I mean, to me, he was just a little kid. And I'm sorry all that happened. I think it's a tragedy for everybody concerned.

On the other hand, I think some positives did come out of it, particularly for him. Because I think from an educational standpoint, everybody has a much better view of where this young man is right now. And I still think that we probably were able to intervene at a time in his life, where there are some positives that are still possible. And based on what I know, I would have been very concerned about the way things were going.

So, he was a friendly, likeable little kid, and I don't know how much intent a kid that age can form. I don't know what was going through his mind in terms of how wrong this was. I mean, he obviously knows it's wrong, but whether he thinks about it or, has a very highly developed conscience about it, I'll never know. But he was likeable. He's a likeable little kid.

Q: In our interviews everybody finds him to be quite a charming, winning kind of personality, with a great smile and a sense of humor, so it's kind of hard to square it with the act that he is charged with, isn't it?

Starr: Well, he's 6 and I think that's part of the defense. I've dealt with kids that I did not like. I've dealt with kids that I thought were really, really dangerous, who I think would cut your throat as well as look at you. And I've also dealt with kids who murder people and were very charming. But circumstances being what they are here, we kind of leave the charges outside. Because if you don't, it makes you a little crazy.

It's not that we don't consider it, particularly with the older kids. If we've got somebody that we know is dangerous physically, obviously that's something that we keep track of. But for a little kid like this and for a lot of these other kids, they can be charming kids and I think that's one of the reasons I stayed in juvenile hall. Because I always liked working with the kids. You know there's a certain kind of an honesty in a juvenile hall setting. It's really hard to lie to people in a juvenile hall setting, and some kids respond to that real well.

It's interesting to me, because all the years that I have been doing this, I have never yet met a kid on the street who wasn't happy to see me. And I think that just has to do with the way we deal with kids. I mean, the people here really deal well with kids. It isn't that you don't hold them accountable, but they can deal with issues of being reined in and directed and one thing and another if it's fair. Obviously, we lock the doors, but they know what the rules are and accept that as long as you're fair with them.

Q: There were some people, and actually this is kind of interesting, that were critical of the 6-year-old being in juvenile hall. I was thinking chiefly of the DA, who said that it wasn't so much that ... he was badly treated here. But his concern was that he was too well-treated here, and that he was getting too used to things, and that his stay here actually wouldn't provide him with any kind of deterrent, but, in fact, might be an incentive, to him later on to come back. Did you have any of those kind of concerns yourself?

Starr: No. You know why? I've heard this over the years, because he was ready to go. On two or three occasions I heard him ask when he was going home. I was concerned for his safety to start with. I thought he needed to be here for his safety. Did I want him here? No. And I am still a little, you know, I'm unhappy that he was here as long as he was, but it took that long for the process to work. And it took that long for everybody to be comfortable that we knew enough about this kid to know what was best for him. But I don't buy that.

No matter what, you're still in custody. You've still got somebody telling you when to go to bed, when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, how to eat, when to talk, when to be quiet, when to go to school. I think he needed that. I think it was a positive thing for him. But I don't think he will be breaking down our door to get back in here because he had such a good time, at least I don't think he will. It's not been my experience.

Q: All right. An experience of bonding with some of the staff members is I mean, maybe it's the first time he ever had that in his life with a male.

Starr: I don't know. He really did. It was pretty obvious to me every time I was here that he had favorites on every shift and that he waited for them to come on and that they really liked him. So, I think it was a good thing. Again, he's 6, and it's a whole different world, 6 to 12 even. I mean, a lot of the 12-year-olds, they don't want anything to do with you, they're already kind of set in their way. But the 6-year-old, I think there were some positives, some real positives that came out of it. I really do.

Q: Why didn't you want him here anyway?

Starr: Well, that age disparity just causes you lots of problems, and originally, I thought it would be much more disruptive than it was. I really have to give the staff at this juvenile hall a lot of credit for jumping right into this thing and making this thing work. They started every day figuring out how they were going to deal with these issues and they did, and I think, for some of them, they were kind of sorry to see him go, because they did get close to him.

But initially, we didn't know how this thing was going to play out. We were very unhappy with all the media attention. We had people gathering out here. I didn't know who they were necessarily and there were all kinds of opposing views on this situation and we were kind of caught in the middle of it. And we had no control over it really. Once the youngster was ordered detained, that was our charge and we had no control, and so we had no idea how long it would last.

But most of the fears I had really didn't come to fruition. It was not the kind of experience I thought we might have. I don't think it upset the unit and I don't think it upset him. I think it was, basically, in the long run, good for him.

Q: There was one psychiatrist who examined this boy, actually, and after spending an hour with him came away and said he was a psychopath in the making, a natural born killer. What's your reaction to that kind of diagnosis?

Starr: Over the thirty years I've been doing this I think I've worked with some really, really good clinician, good psychologists and real good psychiatrists. They sometimes disagree with each other and I really don't know. But, in a way, I think our job was to try and pick up wherever he is and work with him. I didn't work with him directly, so it's hard for me to personally say, and I don't know what's going to happen with him. I mean, I don't know maybe at 15, he'll be a normal 15-year-old, doing normal 15-year-old things, maybe he won't be. But our charge was to work with him whatever the circumstances were.

Q: So what does your gut tell you about his future?

Starr: Well, I'd be less than candid, if I didn't tell you I was really, really concerned. A lot of these kids kind of raise themselves and for those of us who have children, you know how many hours you spend with your kids. And you know how many variables there are that you can't even control. But you're at least giving your kids a direction to go, a road map and all the support and all the bonding that goes with it. A lot of these kids don't get that. Sure. I mean, it really does concern you.

I know kids who are really, really dangerous kids. I've seen kids who I worked with in juvenile halls, who are in state prisons now and will probably never get out of state prisons. For some, violence is a way of life. They respond to certain things by automatically becoming violent. Is it true with this little guy? I don't know. I really don't know. Would it have been true if we hadn't had some intervention with him? Yeah, I think it absolutely would have. Will he grow now and develop? You know, that's all you can hope. But it's tough. And somebody asked Sigmund Freud once what the two most important years of a person's life were, and he said, "The first two." Because that's when you bond. And this little guy may have bonded. I don't know. I don't know much about his early life. Is it true to say he's got some serious, ongoing problems? You bet. So, I mean, I think the system will be involved with him for a lot of years, many years.

Q: But should a 6-year-old even be in the criminal justice system in your view?

Starr: It's a matter of opinion, I guess.

Q: And what's yours?

Starr: Mine is not. No, I think there is a time when kids really do understand what they've done, and he knows the difference between right and wrong, but I don't know how deep it goes. And I think the same thing was going to happen either way, and I think the concern should have been, and was, what was best for him in the long run.

Nobody's interested in tagging this kid with any kind of charges or with anything that'll follow him, but something had to happen, clearly. And I think the same thing would have happened either way. It just would not have generated all the publicity. Is it good? I don't know. I mean, maybe some lessons are learned out of this, that we wouldn't otherwise be looking at. But he's settled and what appears to be a good, overall long-term situation for him is in place.

Q: Ultimately, the system decided to treat him as a victim, rather than an offender. Do you agree with that?

Starr: Yeah. If you go out and look at a lot of kids that I see, they really don't have much going for them. We know, for instance, that the vast majority of kids are going to do all right, they're going to live their lives and grow up and be part of the system. But those kids are kids that generally have had the wisdom to choose their parents wisely. For those kids that don't choose their parents wisely and don't have any of the things that we all take for granted, I mean, what do we expect is going to happen to them? Yeah, I think they're victims.

It doesn't mean you don't have to protect yourself from them. No, it doesn't mean that at all. But I think you do need to understand that everybody doesn't have the same shot in life, and I know people that have the world pretty much the way they want it. They're family-oriented--and this and that and the other--and they think the world is that way. The world isn't that way. There are a lot of people who struggle every day who don't have any of the things that the rest of us take for granted. This is one of them.

Q: Have we lost--are we actually losing compassion for kids like this, we want to see them as offenders and want to lock them up rather than care for them?

Starr: I think there's a certain amount of that. In California, the juvenile justice system became sort of adversarial about 25 or 30 years ago. We didn't used to have DAs in the court room. Defendants generally wrote the petitions and presented the cases and everything else. And I think at that particular point it was not adversarial, so it wasn't a question of being so legalistic. We've certainly got away from that and now there are a lot of other players in this scenario.

But on the other hand, I think there is a real awakening, that regardless of how you see this stuff, if we can't help deal with real small kids, real young kids, before they get into these circumstances, then we lose them. And we don't do a very good job of it. So I think there's an energy to try and do some preventative stuff. We're trying to put some things into the world that might give kids like this a better shot at the world. Like Head Start and some of those programs, which over the years have really shown that they dramatically help some kids adjust to the world and give them some skills they wouldn't otherwise have.

So for me, it really points out the need to try and get ahead of this thing. This state spends more on prisons than we do on higher education. I wonder how much of that money we could save, if we had some money upfront? Not a lot of money, but some money upfront. I think there's a realization of that now. How long it's going to take? I think it's a political issue, isn't it?

I love these quick fixes, where we say, we wouldn't have any problem if we locked all these people up and left them locked up forever. Well, that doesn't take into account that there is this whole new group of people being born, and they're coming up every day right? Do we get to a point where we're locking up everybody? We have 130,000 prisoners in California now. They're talking 275,000 people locked up in the next 20 years. Does it make sense to me? I'd rather start at the other end and see if we can keep some of those people out of the system.

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