little criminals

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  • EPILOGUE from
    All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
    Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright (c)1995. All rights reserved.

    [WARNING Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or exhibition of copyrighted materials.]


    I N  T H E  C L 0 S I N G  Y E A R S of the twentieth century, the number of young boys committing murder has reached epidemic proportions. Between 1985 and 1993, homicides by fifteen-to-nineteen-year-old males in the United States jumped more than 150 percent, almost all of them involving guns. Willie Bosket is no longer an anomaly. Stories like his have become all too familiar as the staple of the nightly television news.

    In the face of this plague of violence, it is easy to despair. The politicians, reading the public opinion polls, have a ready answer: more prisons, tough three-strikes-and-you're-out jail sentences, and laws to try juveniles as adults in criminal courts. Some state legislators have boasted they have "abolished childhood" by providing for children as young as six to be sent to adult court. By 1995, there were I.5 million people incarcerated in state and federal prisons and in local jails around the nation. Another 100,000 youths were confined in juvenile institutions. These numbers have tripled in the past two decades.

    If more prisons was the sole solution to the problem, we should be among the safest nations on earth. But these measures have not reduced the crime rate or made people feel more secure. Prison, it is indisputably true, does incapacitate, keeping offenders off the street and preventing them from carrying out more crimes while locked up. Criminals with records of chronic or violent offenses need to be locked away to protect society. The trouble is, there is little evidence that prison has much of a deterrent effect, especially for young people who come from poor, crime blighted neighborhoods with little hope for the future. In New York State, 85 percent of the youngsters released by the Division for Youth are rearrested. For them, as for Willie and Butch, prison has come all too often to represent simply a rite of passage. Prison is where they expect to go, if they are not killed first. There is also the terrible power of example. The best way to predict who will be arrested and sent to a reformatory, some corrections officials believe, is to check which boys have a father or older brother who has been in prison. Willie and Butch fit this pattern painfully well.

    Prisons have another disadvantage-they are a heavy financial burden. In 1995, the cost of running the nation's prison system-along with probation and parole departments-is running close to fifty billion dollars a year, up from a mere four billion dollars in 1975. Keeping a juvenile in New York's Division for Youth for a year now costs seventy-five thousand dollars; you could send three students to Harvard for the same money. In many states, new laws mandating longer prison terms have forced local governments into prison construction programs that are the fastest-rising item in their budgets. California has reduced funding for its once excellent state college and university system to help pay for its growing number of prisons. Lowering the quality of higher education cannot be a good crime prevention program in the long run. Add to all this another fifty billion dollars a year for the police, and twenty billion dollars annually for the cost of injuries and deaths caused by firearms, and it takes 120 billion dollars a year to pay for our national violent crime problem. If welfare is a failed, dead-end policy, so too is relying on prison to stop crime. This is not something on which liberals and conservatives need disagree. At the minimum, taxpayers are not getting their money's worth.

    But there are better, more effective, and probably less expensive solutions than just building more prisons and handing out longer sentences. One reason for our gloom is that we have forgotten the past. Homicide rates fell consistently across Western Europe beginning in the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, and the decline accelerated in big cities in the nineteenth century with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Modern London has a homicide rate only one-tenth what it was in Chaucer's time. New York and Philadelphia were much safer in 1960 than they were in 1850. The good news is that there is nothing fixed in human nature that decrees murder rates. Nor is murder a predestined urban problem.

    The crux of our dilemma is that the very things that helped lower rates of violence in the past have become more difficult for us to reapply today. It is no coincidence that the centuries-long decline in murder rates was reversed during the 1960s not only in the United States but in Europe, too. Something fundamental changed. The sixties was the decade in which we cast off the long-accumulated rules of self-control for an exaltation of the individual, a "fatal liberty," Tocqueville wrote in another context. We are now less religious, going to church less often, and sending fewer of our children for Sunday school lessons. The family is being pulled apart by centrifugal forces seemingly beyond our control. In our post-industrial era, jobs are shrinking and the authority of the factory foreman and whistle exert less discipline on us. We are less public-spirited and less willing to spend our scarce tax dollars on public schools to teach students to sit still, obey the teacher, and learn useful skills to compete in the global marketplace.

    Finally, more than a century after the end of the Civil War that freed Aaron Bosket, we are still paying the price for the legacy of slavery and racism. It shows in how we think about crime. About three-quarters of all the crimes reported to the police are committed by whites, and there is good evidence that when social, economic, and neighborhood factors are accounted for, there is little difference in crime rates between whites and blacks. But most white Americans instinctively see violence as a black problem-it is they, the ones living in the inner city, the people on welfare, the faces in prison. This makes it easier to call for more police and prisons. But imagine if your child were suddenly transported to the inner city and you could do nothing to remove him from there. All you could do would be to come up with a policy recommendation. You might advocate more cops and jails. More likely, you would want a program that removed guns from the streets, created good jobs, built better housing, and, in particular, made sure your son or daughter lived in a family with good, loving adults.

    It is here, the experts are beginning to agree, that we can make a start. Boiled down to its core, everything criminologists have learned about crime in recent research is that most adolescents who become delinquents, and the overwhelming majority of adults who commit violent crimes, started very young. They were the impulsive, aggressive, irritable children who would not obey their parents, bullied their neighbors, and acted out when they got to school. By first and second grade, teachers can usually identify them in class. They find it difficult to learn, and fall behind in school. Because they are accustomed to getting their way by physical force, they see no reason to change. They actually like the way they act, and this makes it increasingly difficult to reverse their antisocial proclivities. After age seven or eight, their cases seem intractable. This was the pattern with Butch and Willie.

    When they were boys, psychiatrists wrote them off. Once an antisocial personality, always an antisocial personality, it was believed at the time. But modern research suggests there are positive alternative treatments. Early intervention is the key. Many factors go into producing personality: temperament, the genetic component you are born with; the neighborhood in which you grow up; and perhaps most important, the style of your parents. What the researchers have found is that parenting is not a natural instinct. If everything works out, you learn it at the feet of masters, your own parents. But we are losing parenting in America as mobility and divorce sunder families and fifteen-year-olds who did not have proper childhoods of their own have babies. Inadequate parents, white or black, make children who are more at risk.

    Fortunately, psychologists have discovered that some of the missing parenting skills can be taught. Parents can be shown how to keep track of where their children are, what they are doing, and with whom they are playing. If children know someone is watching them and they may get caught, they are less likely to get in trouble. If parents monitor their children more, they are also more likely to spot when something is starting to go wrong. Setting boundaries is essential, so that the child eventually makes these a part of his or her own internal gyroscope. So, too, is consistent, nonphysically abusive discipline. Children who are beaten learn to treat others the same way, using aggression to get what they want. But when parents are instructed in better skills, teachers say the children exhibit fewer discipline problems in school and engage in less lying, stealing, cheating, talking back, and playing hooky. The parents find their offspring less angry, and the children report feeling better about themselves. The magnitude of change in the child, it turns out, is correlated with the magnitude of improvement in parenting skills.

    Some model programs to teach these parenting skills, or home skills, are already in place in cities across the country. They take time, and the results can be frustratingly slow, but there are practical ways to extend these programs on a large scale, if we have the political will. Communities, for example, might create the position of a home health visitor, as some European countries already have, to check households where women are pregnant and provide medical advice and family training. This need not be punitive; instead, it should be part of the local government infrastructure, like drinking water is now. When children first register for school and are given physical exams, they could also be checked for signs of physical or sexual abuse and their families could be assigned help. A more drastic measure advocated by some experts is that we start licensing parents to have children just as we require drivers to get automobile licenses. It was not long ago that we thought it essential for couples to take out marriage licenses before living together and conceiving children.

    T H E  T I M E  H A S  A L S 0  C 0 M E to reexamine the American tradition of violence. The dictates of honor were beloved of antebellum white South Carolinians, but as the old code has been transmuted into the strictures of the street, we have unwittingly created a dangerous anachronism. With modem weaponry in the hands of increasingly younger and more desperate children, the rituals of insults and vengeance are a lethal luxury that we can no longer afford.

    In certain ways, the rest of the globe has come to look more like America since the worldwide upsurge in crime in the 1960s. British homes are now more likely to be burgled than American ones. Cars in France are stolen more frequently than cars in the United States. But in homicide, we retain our longtime lead. In 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available, young men between fifteen and twenty-four in the United States were murdered at a rate of 37.2 per 100,000. That is almost ten times higher than the next closest industrialized country, Italy, and sixty times greater than the homicide rate among the same age group in England. This is not, as some people might suppose, merely a disparity created by the racial composition of our inner cities. When minorities are factored out, America still has a disturbingly disproportionate murder rate.

    In the past few years, perhaps guided by the sudden popularity of the term "dissing" in movies and rap music, sociologists and psychologists have begun to recognize the impact of the notion of disrespect. New curriculums, designed to teach alternate, more peaceful ways to settle conflicts, have appeared in thousands of classrooms across the country. Think of the consequences before you act, is their message. You don't have to use your fists, or a gun, when someone insults you. Whether these modem-day civics lessons are effective is unclear. They may reduce pushing in the cafeteria line; by themselves, they may not stop shooting on the street corner.

    What is needed is not expensive, and again is not necessarily liberal or conservative. It is a shift in thinking that begins at home, that teaches that respect comes from within, not from worrying about the opinions of others.

    This is not to minimize the difficulties in curbing violent crime. But it is helpful to remember how we have succeeded in reducing fatalities caused by drunk driving and smoking. These gains did not come overnight, or by one single magic step. With cigarettes, it has taken years of scientific studies to show the health hazards of tobacco, warnings on cigarette packs by the surgeon general, a ban on television ads, prohibitions against smoking in public places, and most of all, a change in public attitudes that makes smoking less glamorous for young people.

    F 0 R  W I L L I E, it was too late to change. A few months after he was sentenced for stabbing the prison guard, he managed to break free from a metal chain that locked his handcuffs to a belt behind his back and bashed another guard, Ernest Auclair, in the head, leaving a six-inch wound. At the time, Willie was being escorted out for exercise in a small, carefully guarded yard. He received another twenty-five-years-to-life sentence for the assault, under New York's persistent-felon law. Not long afterward, he threw hot water in the face of yet another guard and could have been given a further life sentence, but the district attorney decided Willie was just having fun at the expense of the prison system. What would one more life sentence do to deter him, especially considering the cost of a trial? He was allowed to plead guilty to a minor charge.

    So Willie remains in his specially constructed cell at Woodbourne prison. Some days he expresses remorse for the murders he committed as a boy. They were senseless, wasteful crimes, he now acknowledges. Other times he feels sorry for himself. He has never flown in an airplane, never used a computer, never gotten to be a real father-things that most people take for granted-and he never will. Ironically, he has already served all his time for the attempted assault on Joel Brown, the conviction that brought him back to prison. If he had not attacked his jailers, he would be free. Instead, he still faces three consecutive twenty-five-years-to-life sentences, and given how the parole board feels about him, that means he will spend at least seventy-five more years in prison, until he is one hundred years old.

    When he looks out of his cell, through the narrow barred window across the corridor, he can glimpse a patch of farm fields, green with corn in the summer and white with snow in the winter. Those are the boundaries of his universe now. Knowing that he will never get out, he often thinks he is a prisoner on death row, without an electric chair. He would like to die, but he has discovered that committing suicide takes more courage than killing.

    His mother, Laura, still works as a security guard, as she has since shortly before Willie murdered the men on the subway seventeen years ago. She has kept what she can of her life in order, building small rituals against the pains fortune sent her. She takes the bus each Thursday after work to do her grocery shopping and visits her aging mother in a nursing home every evening. By the time she gets home, she is exhausted.

    Shrilly, Willie's bright, vivacious younger sister, never lived up to her early promise and wandered on the streets.

    Her daughter, who has a smile as big as Willie's, was in a class for the intellectually gifted. When a visitor dropped by their apartment, she always begged for long, trick words to spell. She was hard to stump. But at the age of twelve, she began playing hooky, and did not come home for days at a time. When Willie, sitting in prison, heard about her, he cried. Willie's older sister, Cheryl, seemed the least likely candidate to prosper. She had been locked up by the Family Court as a girl, and she had been an alcoholic, living with Charles, the neighborhood enforcer who sold Willie his murder weapon. Then she met Melvin Stewart. His parents were hard workers from the cotton fields of the South, and he had been in the army in Vietnam, which gave him a sense of discipline. After his discharge, he got d job in the post office. The tenement in Harlem where they lived, they decided, with its frozen pipes in the winter, its drug dealers and shootings and its memories of Willie's last arrest, would ruin them. In an act of supreme determination, they moved to a small yellow house in the rural Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. For Melvin, it was a two-hour commute each way to his job, but he made the drive every day and Cheryl raised their six children. Over the years, they became active in church, reading the Bible together before dinner.

    Now the children play Little League baseball and peewee football, with Melvin as a coach, and Cheryl acts like a cheerleader, jumping up and down. From time to time it occurs to her that she could not be doing this if they had stayed on 145th Street. There were no facilities, and she would have had to look over her head for bullets. Her childhood girlfriend died after being stabbed.

    At Christmas, Cheryl and Willie exchange cards, and it makes her sad. She has learned that the descent into violence is not ineluctable, and salvation begins with breaking away from the code of the streets. She also knows a wonderful truth, she tells herself. The family can be rebuilt.



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