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Paying For Our Inaction

by Andrew Vachss
Originally published in New York Newsday, April 28, 1989

Also available in Russian (

The facts are so horrifying that the adjectives only trivialize. A gang attack on a young woman in Central Park. Homicidal assult. Rape. The victim may die—any delusion that New York is safe for its citizens already has.

Politicians elbow each other to express their "outrage." All focus on the juvenile justice system as the enemy. Newspapers rage that some of the young human beings may escape what they fantasize is the full weight of the law.

Calling the gang that invaded Central Park monsters or mutants may satisfy our need to label. But it is cold comfort to those of us who know the truth:

The production line that spawned them is still in business. There will be more.

"Wilding" is a new term. The behavior is not new. Gang violence is not new. Nor is gang rape or gang murder. It cannot be dismissed by labels, and it will not disappear with the passage of laws. When young Michael Farmer was murdered by a marauding gang in 1957, the media depicted the killers as remorseless savages. They may have been so. When George Adorno and Willie Bosket were terrorizing our city with their motiveless killings, politicians gave us new laws. Juveniles could be tried as adults. That, in itself, is neither necessarily ill–advised or wrong. But selling it as a solution is.

The issue is not whether we can or should try juveniles as adults. The issue is what we do with them once they are convicted. The very concept of separating juveniles from adults is relatively new in this country. Once, crime equaled time. It was that simple. We separated juveniles from adults in the criminal justice system because those juveniles who survived adult incarceration returned to our streets as more competent and committed criminals. But the juvenile justice system didn't give us "rehabilitation." It gave us crime factories and sodomy schools and graduates ranging from John Dillinger to Charles Manson.

The media–driven pendulum swings, and we are still waiting for stability. If you doubt the force of the media upon our perception of reality, name a child other than Lisa Steinberg who was battered to death in our city. Then ask yourself if she was truly the only such victim. The media gleefully report attacks on the Central Park gang by other prisoners as they await trial on Rikers Island. Commentators smugly claim that the "moral code" of the other prisoners will not tolerate gang rape. Do such commentators believe the gang of inmate attackers had no rapist among them?

Politics drives out pragmatism. Ultra–liberals still cling to the "there's no such thing as a bad boy" myth while the ultra–rightists fly the death penalty flag. And we are no closer to safety.

Gangs are collections of people whose individual personalities are subsumed to a greater or lesser extent in the whole. A gang with a sociopathic core will strike, and the concentric circles of violence radiating from its center will touch even fringe members. The issue is not the court in which the gang members will be tried, but the response when the trial is over. For each individual we must ask: Dangerous or not? Amenable to treatment? Likely to be deterred? And we must be guided accordingly.

I ran a maximum security prison for violent juveniles. Some were (by then) untreatable. Urban punk killing machines missing the vital card that separates us from beasts: empathy. Others responded to the opportunity for value clarification and moral growth. They were not "rehabilitated." They were socialized while they were still young enough to take it. And they became human beings. But all needed to be incarcerated while the work went on.

Today's victim of child abuse is tomorrow's predator. Any "war on crime" that fails to recognize child protective services as the front lines exalts rhetoric over reality. And failure to pay for child abuse intervention now guarantees heavier payments in the future. In money and in blood.

If we believe violent criminals are made, not born, we must disrupt the production lines. And if we believe they are born, we will have given "designer genes" a new meaning—one no civilized society should adopt.

Rhetoric is extremely cost–effective. But "get tough" rhetoric is hollow pandering when unaccompanied by long–term solutions. And explanation is not justification. We need politicians with the guts to implement programs that will bear fruit within that sacred cycle, their term in office. We can pay now or pay later. Most politicians will not be around when the bill comes due. But we will.

© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


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