Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the
author. Copyright (c)1995. All rights reserved.
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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
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
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
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
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.