As bad as you want 'em to be

The knives 11-year-old Jonathon Shaddix brought to school were ordinary enough. One was a folding pocket knife. One a key chain knife with a tiny blade. The third was rusted shut.

But Shaddix had said something about killing his teacher, and the gun Shaddix's friend, 9-year-old LaJuan Sims, brought to class was loaded. A .380-caliber semi-auto.

Last week the two were acquitted of the attempted murder of their fourth-grade teacher, Michele Wixson. Prosecutors charged them with plotting revenge against her for disciplining them in class. Circuit Court Judge Bob Wattles threw out the attempted first-degree murder charge and the conspiracy charge and upheld only the weapons charge. Then he delivered a lecture to the two boys, who attended a school for emotionally disturbed youth. "Think before you say something," the judge told the boys. "Something you say can be blown into a big deal."

Indeed it can.

Indeed it can.

The story, on the Sentinel's front page, meshes well with the received wisdom of the 1990s: Kids are dangerous. "Superpredators." Lock them up. Congressman Bill McCollum has introduced legislation to imprison more children and send more to adult court for more crimes, in a bid to "hold them accountable." Randy Means, a spokesman for Osceola State's Attorney Lawson Lamar and an expert in juvenile justice, notes that the county -- and state -- is facing an increase in criminal activity from children. "And our bad kids are worse," he says. "more violent, younger, and more female."

As the state spends $315 million on 5,200 new juvenile prison beds (tripling the number available in 1993-94), and the county locks up increasing numbers of younger, female, and especially African-American youth, few question the basic premise of increasing crime and violence among children.

But what if most juvenile cases are in fact not very serious? And what If many of the seemingly major cases - like Shaddix and Sims' "attempted murder" -- are comparatively minor accidents, as Judge Wattles says, "blown into a big deal?"

"When I charge a case I look at it," says prosecutor Mike Saunders, "and I charge what we can prove." He acknowledges it leaves some room for second guessing.

In 1991 two boys were charged here with throwing a deadly missile -- they egged a store on Halloween. "I remember the case well," says Judge Charles Prather, who presided. "By the way, they were raw eggs, they weren't even hard-boiled."

Few cases are that ridiculous. Prather says he's seen his share of cases that were over-charged, and many, too, that were under-charged. But Barry Hepner, a public defender who acted as Shaddix's lawyer last week, says almost every case he sees is "charged to the max,' often with overlapping charges or several charges for the same crime. Cocaine possession is always added for a distribution charge, for example. If two people both are arrested for burglarizing a home at the same time, they'll be charged with burglary of an "occupied" dwelling, Hepner notes -- a more serious charge than if the house were empty. "You read the case and see that the 'occupant' is actually the co-defendant."

In adult court, most lawyers plea-bargain down the inflated charges. But, Hepner says, many youths go to juvenile court and plead guilty to everything, without a lawyer. He leafs through a judge's sentencing schedule for that day: of 31 cases, only 11 of the kids have lawyers.

"If they plea at arraignment without an attorney then, yes, there's the likelihood they will plead to more charges," Saunders acknowledges. But "I don't think the court is going to impose any harsher penalty on two charges as opposed to one, just as they will not necessarily sentence harder if they aren't represented' by a lawyer.

But the heavy charges also create unnecessarily lengthy and serious-looking juvenile records for youths, over-crowd juvenile detention halls that turn into crime schools, and inflated juvenile crime statistics that feed society's fear and cynicismâ?¦while absorbing millions of tax dollars better spent on the kinds of social programs (which the state Legislature cut last year by $370 million) that help keep kids out of trouble in the first place.

Here's another example: Say "carjacking" and people know what you mean. They've seen it in the movies, they've seen it on the evening news. Some big scary guy stops you on the way to your car, takes out a gun, and demands your keys. You give them up and he speeds away in your vehicle.

Last fall something like this happened to a woman at Summerlin Avenue and Jefferson Street. Something like this -- but really like this at all.

The woman had just gotten out of her rental car when two girls approached her, one with a hand behind her back. One of them said, "Gimme the car keys, bitch."

Saunders eventually charges both girls with carjacking, but both saw the charges dropped and were remanded to juvenile court three weeks ago. Vernita Hardy is 14 years old, 4-foot, 9 inches tall with an 18-month-old baby. LaCarsha Robinson is 5-foot-2 and 90 pounds, 15 years old. They wrenched away the woman's purse and took $9; Hardy was caught at the scene by a bystander.

How did this purse-snatching (the victim suffered scratches on her arm but got her purse and money back) become a "life felony" carjacking? The girls confessed that they were after the car and Robinson, who has several priors including a burglary at age 12 and a battery at 14, admitted to having held a piece of glass behind her back. They didn't use it; the victim never saw it.

"I wasn't pleased that they dropped one of the charges," says the victim, who is about 30 years old, 5-foot-6 and 120 pounds. "They might not have been put up to adult if me and my husband hadn't kept calling and said, 'What's going on?'"

In the court record is a letter of apology from Hardy, on lined white paper written in pencil. The letter, written from a detention hall where the girls were held from September through January, begs the judge to let her go home and see her mom, who was just released from a four-year term. There are two drawings on the page of a sad face with tears pooling below it. "I'm very sorry," the letter says. "I don't know what was wrong with me that day."

The victim got a letter too. 'I didn't want to look at it," she says. "She claimed she had never done anything like this before. Well, too late for apologies." The victim says both the girls should go to prison; she still feels threatened. "There are hordes of children, 14,15,16 `years old`, walking across the street in the morning," she says. "You look and wonder which one."

Figuring our 'which one" is the toughest and most important job of the system. But even with the tougher sentencing, kiddie prisons and hard attitude among prosecutors, the juvenile justice system has great difficulty telling the difference between a regular kid who screwed up once and will straighten out - far more than 95 percent of all the kids who now go into the juvenile justice system -- and the hardcore psycho kid who really does need to be locked up.

The justice system may not be the best place to make these decisions. But the other institutions where they can be made -- schools, social service agencies - have been downsized to pay for more jails. Wixson, the former Pine Hills Elementary teacher whom Sims and Shaddix allegedly meant to kill, says they ought to be punished, "but the kids weren't necessarily aware of what killing me would mean."

The school system reacts to bad behavior with "counseling" rather than attempting to solve the problems that give rise to that behavior, Wixson says. So the kids often do not improve, and sometimes they get worse. Public school personnel "aren't trained in restraint procedures," she noted. But there is another element in the story.

The circumstances that lead to the kind of scare Wixson faced -- or worse -- begin in a home environment in which an adult leaves a loaded .380 where a 9-year-old can pick it up. In Florida it is illegal to leave a gun where a child can get it. Saunders says he knows of no investigation into the origin of that gun.

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