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WHO IS THE SERIOUS, VIOLENT, HABITUAL OFFENDER?

A Speech by: Andrew H. Vachss
NEW DESIGNS
January-February 1983


When discussing the "serious, violent, habitual juvenile offender," we should attempt to reach at least a glimmering of consensus as to whom we are talking about. Some people see serious offenders, violent offenders and habitual offenders as individual types. Because we are here to talk about the type of individual who has all three characteristics, it seems that we are talking about some new breed of juvenile. If you read the papers, watch T.V. or listen to politicians you will believe that somehow genetics and culture have combined or conspired over the years to produce a new kind of child: a kid who rapes and robs and murders with impunity, with abandon, and who seems to enjoy this work. Such a child seems to be completely unresponsive to anything we have to offer. But that's been kind of an excuse. The kids they write about today, whose faces now appear in the newspapers and on television, are the same kinds of kids who existed 10 years ago, a decade ago, a generation ago ... a hundred years ago.

"...One of the reasons that our profession has been willing to accept the idea that there is a new breed of juvenile is that this profession does not want to face the fact that it has failed with a particular, tiny segment of the population for which we are responsible."
—Andrew Vachss

One of the reasons that our profession has been willing to accept the idea that there is a new breed of juvenile is that this profession does not want to face the fact that it has failed with a particular, tiny segment of the population for which we are responsible. It is much easier to say we are geared up to deal with "delinquents," that we can handle all kinds of "juvenile" crime, and that there's a certain type of kid whom we call the "life–style violent juvenile" (I'll get into that definition in a moment) whose very existence is a threat to every single one of our treasured principles about juvenile justice. Every single bill of goods that we've been selling the public for the last century is at risk because of this kid. This kid is the failure of our profession but our fight now is to keep this kid. When I say keep this kid, I mean keep him within our jurisdiction. Keep him within our zone of responsibility. To fight against the idea of waiver, bind–over, transfer, certification, whatever term you choose to use. But to fight against the concept of washing our hands and throwing this kid out with the garbage. That fight is the strength of our profession too. I'm not always proud of our profession, but I am proud of the fact that we are not buying into the idea that we are going to surrender on this critical issue.

Now, what am I talking about? Who is this kid? What are his characteristics? (And when I say "his," obviously there are female delinquents who also fit within this category. So far, their numbers are relatively small so there's been little focus on them. So when I use the term "his" or "he," picture in your mind that the terms are somewhat interchangeable with "her" and "she"). This kid is characterized by a complete lack of apparent empathy for other human beings. He feels no pain but his own. This is the type of kid who will kill three people on separate occasions for no apparent reason, commit a subway robbery, do a push–in mugging, blow somebody away because they "looked at him wrong." He will show no remorse, and then come into the office of an institution just enraged, veins bulging out of his neck, sweat pouring off his forehead, eyes wild, incoherent almost to the point of tears ... all because someone broke his portable radio. And he'll see no contradiction whatsoever. He simply does not feel anyone's pain but his own. This is a learned response. People are not born like this.

The second characteristic is lack of perception of the future. He has none. If you ask a kid like this, "What are you going to be doing next year?" you will get an absolutely blank stare. Not because he's stupid, but because he simply cannot conceptualize such a distance from right now. If you want to speak with this kid, you have to speak within his time frame, and that time frame isn't ever more than a few hours from the present.

This kid does not relate behavior to consequences. He does not see a causal connection between his acts and a response. What do I mean? To this kid, life is a lottery. Everyone rolls the dice, but not everyone pays the price. He has no perception as to how the dice will come up. In his world, everyone commits crimes. Everybody. Some smaller percentage of that number are arrested. A still smaller percentage go to court; an even smaller percentage go to trial. A smaller percentage still are actually found guilty (or "adjudicated delinquent" if you prefer), and a smaller percentage of that group are committed to a youth authority. Lastly, an even smaller percentage are actually incarcerated.

In his mind, everybody commits these crimes. He sees no connection between his acts and the consequences. He is marked by a chronicity of violence, usually an escalating pattern. Violence permeates his existence until it is his existence. It is not the extent of his criminality that frightens us, but its regularity. Crime is not so much an occupation in the sense of a professional criminal, but a way of life, with violence as the structural underpinning.

He has translator mechanisms in his head. You think of earning money; he thinks of taking money. You think of romance; he thinks of rape. Criminal sophistication is almost totally lacking. He takes money: he doesn't plan in any real sense; he's not organized in his criminality. Even what to do with the money is not pre–planned. The money itself has an ephemeral quality. He gets up in the morning about 11:00 a.m., puts on his sneakers, listens to the radio, looks in the refrigerator, sees nothing there ... maybe some old corn–flakes. Hits the street with his friend, hangs out. He waits for an elderly woman to come home from the supermarket; follows her to her house. Gets on the elevator with her; she presses the button for the fourth floor; he presses it for the second floor. Jumps off at the second floor and runs up the stairs, watches her open her apartment door, slams forward, shoves the door open and the woman inside, kicks the door shut behind him, smashes the woman in the face until she hits the ground, snatches whatever little money she has. And goes back downstairs to the same corner. If there was enough money, he may buy some soda, some pizza, some marijuana; he may go to a movie downtown. He'll be back tomorrow. Sooner or later one of the elderly women dies. And then the crime is treated in the media not as an organic continuation of a lifestyle but as some kind of nova–blast of episodic crime. That's not the way it really is, and we all know better.

I'm not here to excuse or condone such crimes. But I want you to understand them. I'm not talking about an episodic offender. I'm not talking about some human being that just snaps out and hurts other people. I'm talking about a person who has violence so inexorably woven into his life that a fatality is, in fact, predictable at some point in his career.

WHO ARE THE ROLE MODELS FOR THESE OFFENDERS?

Who are his role models? Those who are, in his mind, successful criminals. He doesn't know any real successful criminals. He knows no embezzlers. He knows no computer criminals. He knows no politicians. He knows only what he perceives as success. And what tells him someone is a success? A diamond ring, fine clothes, a car. Not a home, because his perception doesn't extend that far. He focuses on the things you can carry around with you. And when he goes to jail, that perception doesn't change. So when you read about one kid stabbing another to death over a fancy pair of sneakers in a juvenile institution, don't dismiss it as insanity. It may be insane, but it's consistently so.

So who are the role models? Pimps, dope dealers, armed robbers. And when this kid thinks "armed robbery," he's thinking like a cowboy. He's thinking about the guys who kick in the door of a social club, blow away three or four people, and end up with five hundred dollars. He doesn't even conceptualize a large–scale robbery, such as an armored car job. He doesn't even conceptualize stealing anything but cash, or things readily convertible to cash.

This obsession with visible symbols of power and respect translates into the ultimate perversion of the American version of manhood. If you ask one of these kids, "how do you know you're a man?", he'll answer you like this: "I'm a man because I can make a life, and I can take a life." That kid, that's his world. Is he dangerous? Of course he's dangerous. Is he too dangerous to be at large? Very probably so.

IS HE BEYOND OUR REACH?

Now here's the question: is he beyond our reach? If we can't say "No!" to that, we should give it up. We've been ducking and dodging that issue for too long a time. If we face reality, this is what "prevention" is all about. Part of the profession wants to say: "We can't deal with this kid; this kid is (you fill in the blanks with whatever you want ... an animal, a beast, a lunatic); we can't deal with him. Let the adult system take him. We'll work with the good kids, the other kids." Now part of our profession wants to accept and acknowledge our collective responsibility for this kid. But even that part doesn't say: "I'll take him." No. What we say is: "We're going to prevent him. We're going to stop this deadly flower from reaching full bloom." Well, people, that's a joke, a real joke. And the joke is on you and on the American public. You cannot prevent this kid if you persist in starting where you have been. There's a continuum of production that results in this kid being among us. There's a virtual assembly line, with components being attached at each stage until this human being has reached his full dangerous growth. By the time you start to "prevent," it's already too late.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

Now why should we care about this kid at all? The whole profession keeps saying, in a very self–comforting kind of way, that this kid represents only a tiny minority of the juvenile population. A minority within a minority, we keep telling ourselves. People draw pictures that show us this kid is maybe one percent of the whole mixed bag of juveniles. In fact, I've talked to people from some states who swear "We don't have any such kids. Not in the whole damn state. After all, we don't even have apartment buildings."

There's a reason to care. First, these kids have a disproportionate impact on crime in any community. Allen Breed has quoted some scary statistics. He has said that twenty–four percent of all violent crime was committed by people under eighteen years of age. But he didn't say that twenty–four percent of all criminals are under eighteen. And the fact is that each and every one of these kids is a crime wave. Each and every one of them. They are very few. In Professor Wolfgang's famous "Cohort Study" he found that about six percent of all juveniles in his study were responsible for sixty–six percent of repetitive violent crime. Think about it. These young human beings impact explosively on communities. Then, too, they have high visibility. These kids are a politician's dream. People have been elected to office on the backs of two or three violent kids. All because the public loves hypodermic solutions to problems. The public desperately wants to believe that there's a pill or an injection that will stop crime. So these kids have been a bonanza for politicians. You can pass laws that will provide all kinds of Draconian consequences for kids who engage in this violent behavior on a daily basis, but you are doing nothing whatsoever to stop the behavior itself.

The real reason these kids are so important is that they destroy every piece of mythology that has been built up about juveniles over the past century. This kind of kid does not fit within any "program." I'll tell you what I mean.

Not too long ago, we were fighting another battle, the battle for de–institutionalization. We knew, instinctively, intuitively, and intellectually that institutions were bad for kids. They damage human beings; they are criminogenic. We called them "crime factories" and "sodomy schools" and we were right. We wanted to take kids out of institutions.

Community–based programs came into vogue in the late 60s and early 70s, and some folks had some fantastic programs. Some programs really worked. And then along would come one of these special kids, one life–style violent juvenile and, boom! ... no more program. All by himself, one of these kids could dismantle a program.

So why did the programs take these kids? Well, there are two basic reasons. Number one, sometimes when people hit on an idea that works, they think it's infinitely expandable, and that's a mistake. The second mistake is that these community–based programs were always dependent on funding, unlike juvenile prisons. The more successful the program, the more likely you are to have one of these kids dumped into it.

Now how do they blow up a program? I'll give you one example. When I was running an institution, we had a young man there I'll call Raphael. He was a member of a gang in which manhood was expressed in ways I've already described to you, and with one additional feature: skill with a knife was most highly exalted. Skill with a knife and distorted visions of manhood and respect.

So Raphael cut a lot of people, hurt a lot of people. In fact, before we arrived, he hurt a lot of people within the institution. He settled all disputes, all conflicts, with a knife. Now, after a while, he was doing okay with us, and by "okay" I mean he wasn't stabbing anybody. You understand what I'm talking about? I don't mean he was "self–actualized." I don't mean to say he was a heavy participant in group therapy. He wasn't on the road to college, but he wasn't stabbing anybody. And we knew, unlike most of the people who seem to run institutions, that some day he would leave us and would be judged in the real world not on our success inside, but on how he acted on the streets. He was making progress.

Now he was a good–looking young man and had the gift of gab. And one day a group of people came in to see us. They're running a "program;" I won't characterize it, a group home of some kind. They were looking for candidates for their program. They had some empty beds and they wanted some of our kids. We were opposed to this. But, of course, we were not running the state government. So they roamed around and made a selection, and Raphael was a selection. We sat them down and tried to talk to them like human beings. We said "You don't want this kid. Ever. You don't want him in life. He's going to hurt somebody." And what do they tell me? "You're a thug." "You don't understand. You have to reach out and touch him." You know the story.

The temptation was to say "Go ahead and take him" but we still resisted. And we lost. So they took Raphael and figured they'd go to work on him right away. They had a procedure there that they called the "hot–seat." They'd put one kid in a chair, circle around it, and then verbally attack him. They'd rip him up and then tell him that the house rules are "no violence."

So they put Raphael in the chair and they decided that the reason he stabbed people, the reason he had tattoos, the reason he carried himself as he did, was that he was a homosexual. They confronted him with this so–called "reality" about himself. He excused himself, got up very calmly and went into the kitchen, found a knife, and gutted another kid, like you would a fish.

Raphael stabbed the other kid, sat down, said "I'm a man" and waited for the police to come. Big deal; an instant replay of his life. The program was totaled.

This happens a lot, and the program people in this case were not completely to blame. They thought they had something good; they wanted to go with it; there was heavy pressure on them to take more people. But every time you try and co–mingle one of these kids with their natural prey, it's not going to work.

WHERE DO THESE YOUNG PEOPLE COME FROM?

Where did this kid come from anyway? Is he a bio–genetic mutation that has evolved after hundreds of years of reproduction in the human race? I hope you don't believe that, and I hope you don't believe that he's a cultural aberration. Or that once the economy gets back on its feet, he will disappear. I hope you don't believe it's as simplistic as a "breakdown of family values." Let me tell you something. He comes from us. He is a product of the human services profession.

"...I have never seen one of these kids that hasn't been within our child protective and child–caring system for years and years before the juvenile justice profession is asked to "intervene."
—Andrew Vachss

I have never seen one of these kids that hasn't been within our child protective and child–caring system for years and years before the juvenile justice profession is asked to "intervene." We have to create the beast. It cannot be born whole. If you look at adult life–style criminals (and again I emphasize life–style, not people who made a lot of headlines with one explosive act), you can be guaranteed to see one thing in their background. No matter where such people are politically or socially: from a berserk neo–Nazi like Charles Manson to a prison–created revolutionary like George Jackson, from the Boston Strangler to Carryl Chessman, from John Dillinger to Gary Gilmour, to Carl Panzram to Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde). They all did time as juveniles. Amazing, isn't it?

You probably never heard of Carl Panzram. He was a mass murderer who killed more than a couple of dozen people at different times in his short life. He killed for the fun of it. He liked to kill people. The only things he liked better than killing people were sodomizing little boys and arson. He caused more destruction than a small army.

Finally, Panzram, who was intelligent despite his lunacy, decided he wanted to die. But the state wouldn't kill him. He kept killing, but he didn't die. Finally, he killed a prison guard and ended up on trial for his life. Do you know what lie he told the jury? "I am what you made me. You put me in that training school for boys and you trained me that the greatest joy in life is sodomy and murder. And if you don't kill me now, while you have the opportunity, I'm going to kill some of you. The state gave me birth, let the state take my life." The state finally did.

Now I'm not Carl Panzram's attorney. I'm not trying to excuse his behavior.

Even if I could explain it, he was too dangerous to walk among us. But he spoke the truth. When Charles Manson said, "You can see me in the eyes of your ten–year–olds," that was not an original line. We have been producing the life–style violent criminal for generations, and the factory has been the child protective and juvenile justice system.

In order to create the kind of sociopathic, non–empathetic, violent human being I've been talking about, you need an institution. You need a controlled environment. You need an environment where might makes right.

You need an environment where there is a hierarchy of exploitation; where the rule is "be exploited or exploit others." For many, many years we have run our institutions on a jungle model where the strong not only survive, but thrive. And when the beast is released, we all pay.

HOW DID WE GET WHERE WE ARE?

Now how did we get to this stage?

First, all we've ever done as a profession is react. From the beginning of juvenile justice, we've reacted to things. How did this all start? At the turn of the century, we said to the public: "You can't lock up adults and children together. It's going to criminalize the juveniles. Prison is a bad experience." And when the public bought this proposition, we proceeded to simply react to the opportunity without going further. We did not say that prisons were a bad experience because of the way they are run. We did not design particular kinds of incarcerative options ranging from ultra–minimum to full maximum security. All we did was take the kids from the adult prisons and then replicate the adult prison system, brick for brick, program for program, and failure for failure.

Then we invented a whole lot of euphemisms. We changed all the names. Crime becomes "delinquency," a "finding of delinquency" is substituted for guilty, prisons become "training schools." We kept talking about "the best interests of the child," "the needs of the child," and it was all nonsense. We didn't develop anything, we simply reacted, like any politician would.

We've been in hot pursuit of "rehabilitation" for a hundred years and we haven't caught it yet. We bought into a medical model that we knew in our hearts was pure junk. You break a bone, you go to physiotherapy, you work with the therapist, you follow the program, you take the medicine, the cast comes off, the arm works again ... it's rehabilitated. But the kids we're talking about today never functioned. They dysfunctioned starting before they ever came into the juvenile justice system. What can we return them to?

Child protective and juvenile justice professionals pay a terrible price for not being willing to take responsibility for these kids. That price is giving up the control we need to prove once and for all that we can do the job.

"...Child protective and juvenile justice professionals pay a terrible price for not being willing to take responsibility for these kids. That price is giving up the control we need to prove once and for all that we can do the job."
—Andrew Vachss

We don't want to bite the bullet and admit that there are certain human beings on this planet, in this country, in our cities who need basic socialization before they can be among us. I don't mean that these kids need exotic drugs; I don't mean that they need bizarre treatment modalities. I mean they need to learn how to be human beings. They can#39;t learn that on the street. They can't learn that in group homes.

There are people who require incapacitation, because if it's not provided, we end up where we are today, with a public that doesn't trust us a good goddamn. The public has been listening to us, albeit with a jaundiced ear, for a century. And we've been promising them the moon. Now the only promise the public wants to hear is that we are going to do something about the crimes that affect the quality of their lives. We are too fond of parables that are just plain nonsense. Here's one of my favorites: "It costs less to send a kid to Harvard than it does to incarcerate him for a year." If Harvard would take them, we'd ship them to Harvard. Well, Harvard won't take them, and if we want out from under the domination of these kids, we can't get there with clever sayings.

What we have to realize is that kids will be adults. If all we do is put them on ice until we are no longer administratively responsible for their behavior, we've committed a mortal sin. If we get a kid that's, say, 15 years old we probably will hold him in some kind of suspended animation, doing nothing but time until he's eighteen. If after he's released he kills a cop, he's an adult. And we have nothing to do with it. Well, maybe not legally, but certainly morally. The public's finally waking up to the fact that once you put your hands on something you have a responsibility for it.

I agree that we should fight wholesale institutionalization, but we should not fight it so hard that we abandon the field to our traditional adversaries. We should be against institutionalization, but we must also understand that we must have the capacity to remove the tiny percentage of life–style violent juveniles from society while work is being done. Without secure treatment units we show society nothing, and we show the kids nothing.

What do we do with the criminally insane, violent juvenile? The hospitals won't take him. Nobody will take him. So he ends up in a juvenile institution, doing time with others who are criminal, but not insane. What other profession does this?

CAN WE "INDIVIDUALIZE THE OFFENDER?"

If we were truly to "individualize the offender," we would take the responsibility upon ourselves, not pass it along to prosecutors, or to legislators. We would keep it. And if we were to respond to the problem by establishing secure treatment units for this tiny minority, we would take a crushing weight off the entire juvenile justice system.

Our skilled professionals then could get on with doing their business, freed from constantly watching their backs for the emergence of one of the kind of kid who can destroy their programs. Because we've known for a long time that if we could just get the life–style violent juvenile and the criminally insane juvenile out of our system, we could make that system work. In reality, we have to take collective responsibility for all kids, below whatever age the legislature establishes, and on a statewide basis. Accepting this as fact, within our collective responsibility we can and must make our own decisions. No law can prescribe the treatment required for an individual. The law can only define what constitutes an offense. Most people believe that murder is the worst offense of all. To me, murder is the offense for which there are the broadest possible range of motives. If I were told about a 15–year–old boy only that he killed somebody, I would actually know very little about him and I would certainly not be prepared to make an incarcerative placement or treatment decision about him. But we do that all the time.

Child protective and juvenile justice professionals pay a terrible price for not being willing to take responsibility for these kids. That price is giving up the control we need to prove once and for all that we can do the job. The public will accept construction of secure treatment units, not only because they guarantee incapacitation of those that they fear, but because such units are a visible symbol of the jurisdiction's commitment to do something about violent crime. All we're doing now is fighting a losing battle against the concept of treating juveniles in the adult criminal justice system. The fact is, if we say to the public, don't send the kid to adult corrections, the public has a right to ask us "What are you going to do with him? More experiments? More R&D? No thanks. The risks are too high. Go ahead and conduct your experiments. Take a chance and see if maybe you can help this kid. But do it in some place where the kid can't come around and visit me at night." Until we can promise this to the public, we haven't said a thing.

What the public really wants is a kind of "soft death penalty" for these kids: not to kill them, but to knock them out for a few years and then have them emerge, reborn as good citizens. We have sold the public a bill of goods about that too. We quote the old "burn out" baloney. "Kids who commit acts of vandalism burn out. They stop eventually. Kids who steal cars for joy rides; kids who get into fist fights, kids who shoplift. They may all burn out."

But the kid who gets up every morning for crime and goes to sleep each night dreaming of violence doesn't burn out. He burns people up. We've got to stop selling that bilge to the public. We have to advocate strongly for special programs for the life–style violent juvenile.

Years ago, the so–called "wolf children" were found in Europe. They had, apparently, been raised by wild animals. They were completely amoral, unsocial. They were feral, wild things. They lacked any semblance of social control; just responded, as animals, to stimuli. And millions and millions of dollars were spent understanding those kids.

Today we have "wolf children" in every city... and they scare the hell out of us. So, we try the "quick fix" solution: make them into adults. That will work. That will give the public half of what's wanted. It will, in fact, temporarily, cage the animal.

New York, for example, has a life sentence possibility—for 13–year–olds. A kid may serve nine, 10, 15 years on a life sentence by the time he reaches the age of 28. Half his life has been spent in a maximum security prison. Is he going to rejoin society as a computer programmer? Of course not. He's going to hurt people, very quickly, and, depending on what he's learned in prison, perhaps very efficiently. This is not the solution to the problem of violent juvenile crime.

The public doesn't really care about crime. The public cares about violence. The public cares about robbery, rape, arson, and murder. A bomb is ticking within the juvenile justice system. We have (and we have had before) the opportunity to defuse that bomb and we've been wasting time passing the buck instead.

There has been a lot of talk about "prevention," but if by "prevention" we are talking about preventing vandalism we are probably perpetrating another rhetorical rip–off. If we're serious, we're going to try to prevent violent crime.

We are just beginning to realize that the protection of children from child abuse is protection of society in the long run. We are finally waking up to the fact that victims don't just shrug off child abuse and go about their normal lives.

"...We are just beginning to realize that the protection of children from child abuse is protection of society in the long run. We are finally waking up to the fact that victims don't just shrug off child abuse and go about their normal lives."
—Andrew Vachss

CHILD ABUSE AND THE VIOLENT OFFENDER

Here's the problem: a kid progresses from birth until the time he finally impacts on our system. I have seen (and please, don't anybody ask me to "look at the numbers" because I haven't received $3 million in federal funds to reinvent the obvious), as have others, an astounding causal connection between children who were horribly abused at an early age and those who end up as tenants in our juvenile institutions, convicted of serious violence.

Here, then, is the paradox. When social workers get an abused kid that's been tortured, they say the kid is a victim. Several years later, when the juvenile justice system gets the kid, the kid is a predator.

When the kid kills, the newspaper coverage is sure to include a line about how this kid was known to the juvenile justice profession. He was on probation, on parole, a graduate of one program or another, a runaway from a training school... it doesn't matter.

"...Here, then, is the paradox. When social workers get an abused kid that's been tortured, they say the kid is a victim. Several years later, when the juvenile justice system gets the kid, the kid is a predator."
—Andrew Vachss

The obvious implication is that our profession failed; failed both the kid and society. Here's the funny part: we're failing with the survivors, because when social service fails, when the child protective field fails, the kid dies.

Recently, in Nashville, there was an account of a kid who was boiled to death. First his people beat him and then they just boiled him to death. That's typical of many of these cases. Nobody seems to kill a kid in one quick move; child abuse seems to be no more episodic than the life–style juvenile violence that so concerns us and the public. There is a continuum. To place child abuse to the left and juvenile violence to the right and try to perform "prevention" miracles somewhere in the middle makes no sense. How is it possible to "prevent" what has already been set in motion long before we see it?

Why shouldn't the social services profession at one end and the juvenile justice profession at the other both be committed to the same children? The two professions, which should be married to each other, are not even carrying on a dialogue. We are just beginning to realize that the protection of children from child abuse is protection of society in the long run. We are finally waking up to the fact that victims don't just shrug off child abuse and go on about their normal lives. When that violent seed reaches full flower, it's already inside our system and we can't get away from it.

I believe we can solve this problem. Unfortunately, what most people believe is that if we can just come up with the right label, the problem will magically self–resolve. By now we should be experts in what doesn't work.

You know the old rhetoric about taking the handcuffs off the police so they can do their job and fight crime? Well, we volunteered for our handcuffs. We have said certain types of kids are beyond us at one end; that's the life–style violent juvenile, and out of our jurisdiction at the other; that's the abused child. We have to act before the abused child makes the transition from victim to predator. Any other kind of "prevention" is hogwash.

"...we're failing with the survivors, because when social service fails, when the child protective field fails, the kid dies."
—Andrew Vachss

Some people say, "why go to all this for such a few kids? Isn't this a financial waste?"

I tell such people, "The cost–benefit analysis you do is a lie. Just a plain lie. You don't know how, or don't care, to put a value on a human life. One kid stalking the city streets, a dangerous, sociopathic human being reeking with the potential to take human life may not be worth the price of a .38 Special bullet to blow him away. But the life he can take, the destruction he can cause, is worth an enormous amount of money, especially if we perceive it as an investment. And it's like any other long–term investment: the earlier you invest, the greater the return at the end."

I've addressed audiences of social workers, and of juvenile justice professionals, but I've yet to address an audience that contained both. I've yet to see any meaningful attempt to sit down and face the hard questions between the two professions. Territorial disputes and grants–chasing are far less important than facing a collective responsibility for the protection of children from the time they are born until they reach adulthood, if need be. The grab–bag, buzz–word solutions are an insult to the public. We should just throw them in the garbage where they belong. I've heard just about everything at these conferences: if we cut down on sugar intake, violence is going to drop. Jogging, physical exercise, rap sessions ... who's kidding who? Our profession is bankrupt in courage. It's been in hiding for so long, that it won't confront even rampant nonsense.

Remember "Scared Straight"? That was the ticket; the path to perfection in juvenile violence. It sold faster than heroin. It started out that we were going to scare dangerous and violent kids. By the time some judges got done with it, they wanted to scare the entire planet. You take the kids on guided tours of prisons. You scare the hell out of them. What could be wrong with that?

Let me tell you what's wrong with that. You bring some kids to a maximum security prison and let that effectively frighten them. Maybe you scare them half to death so they never want to go near a prison again. Now let's take the same kid, a few days later. He's in an apple orchard with some of his friends, stealing some apples from a tree. The old lady who owns the orchard comes out and shakes her cane at the kid, says how terrible he is and how she's going to call the police and send him to prison. He flashes on "prison!" and he's so scared that he bashes in the old lady's skull to keep her from calling the cops.

Fear isn't something that is guaranteed to produce any particular result. It's like a bomb dispersal pattern. Some people run left, some run right. Some freeze. We've been scared in this profession. We've been dictated to by the media. We bought so much of our own nonsense rhetoric years ago that now the whole profession is simply trying to survive. We should be going the other way. We should be saying: "Look, give us the chance that we've never had."

Forget about who's responsible for the past. We want to start the protection of children from when they first need it, not when we need protection from them. That's when we need to "prevent" delinquency. We want collective responsibility for all juveniles, including the juvenile criminal and the insane juvenile right up to the age of adulthood, with no waiver or any other cop–out. We will fulfill that responsibility by a guarantee of no worse a result than adult corrections, because we will incarcerate, and still treat, the people you were looking to dump into the adult prison system. We will give the public nothing worse, and the promise of something far better.

This profession needs to separate its treatment modalities based on knowledge and reality, not politics or grantsmanship. We need special institutions and special programming aimed at each component segment of the juvenile population. We want prevention by intervention at whatever level is indicated, including into child abuse and neglect. We need a continuum of responsibility so there's no place to hide. We need research and development to be of the parallel–track variety. We must take young human beings who are life–style violent juveniles and make a real attempt to socialize, treat, assist, prevent.

We want to put this effort side–by–side with another jurisdiction that is doing "business as usual," and we then want to let the public judge for itself. We have to have the courage to demand this final opportunity. Not for more academic research, not for more studies, but for the chance to confront the beast.

We have never had the chance that not only we deserve, but that our clients, those we are sworn to protect, also deserve. Time is running out for our profession. If we don't take this opportunity, in 10 years, we will look around and see this profession eroding before our eyes. We'll all end up doing some kind of nonsense "counseling," for kids who probably would stop their behavior on their own as they mature. The life–style violent juvenile will become the responsibility of the adult prison system and the age which defines him will drop down practically to infancy. Without taking the responsibility for all children, we cannot protect the public, serve our profession, or gain the self respect we so desperately need. We've been promising for too long; now it's time to deliver.

Copyright © 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.


Andrew Vachss is a practicing attorney in New York City. He is the author of The Life–Style Violent Juvenile, published by Lexington Books in 1979. Though that book is long out–of–print, you can view online the architectural guides for a Secure Treatment Unit, and read an excerpt from the book online, Mr. Vachss has had extensive experience both in institutions serving delinquent young people and community organizations concerned about child abuse.

The text of this article is a speech presented by Mr. Vachss on May 26, 1982, in Nashville, Tennessee, at a regional workshop sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was transcribed by the Community Research Center of Champaign, Illinois, and is reprinted with their permission.



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