THE CITIES OF AMERICA ARE HAUNTED BY THE DREADFUL PROBLEMS OF THE YOUNG IN CRIME
Reporting: Cheryl McCall
Call him Johnny. He is 22, and he has just been thrown into a Houston jail for an alleged purse snatching. The most disturbing thing about him is what he represents--the great increase in crimes involving young Americans. The statistics are awesome. In 1975, youths of 17 and under committed 85,418 violent crimes--murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults and almost three-quarters of a million serious property crimes. Schools have become places of hazard--about 70,000 teachers were assaulted last year--and large areas of our cities have turned into terror zones where citizens, particularly the elderly, are stalked by youths who often kill or maim for the meager contents of a pensioner's purse.
Today's young offenders are among the last of the post-World War II baby boom. As the number of youths in the population begins to fall, the amount of youth crime should drop too--but not fast or far enough to make the problem less urgent. Social scientists, police officers and other professional observers point to a variety of causes for this crime wave--high unemployment, television violence, clogged and outmoded juvenile courts. A number of professionals--and a large segment of the public--blame "soft" judges, lenient sentencing and court rulings that restrict police procedures. Most observers agree that a contributing cause is the breakdown of the traditional family with its stabilizing combination of love and discipline.
What is being done? A number of states are meting out much stricter sentences to youths convicted of serious crimes. All but seven states now have programs underway to ban the placement of such "status offenders" as truants and runaways in institutions where they can be influenced by true criminals. Foster home programs have been developed to provide troubled youngsters with a wholesome family atmosphere, and halfway houses in many localities have been established to rehabilitate at least the less violent youths through intensive counseling and therapy.
Yet most experts believe that the sum of these efforts is far from sufficient. The agonizing problems of prevention and punishment raised by Johnny, and by the two young people whose alarming and pitiful stories appear on the following pages, are apt to be with us for a long time to come.
A tough kid, and his crime in the street
Just after he turned 16 in April, Willie Millan of New York's South Bronx was arrested on a burglary charge. Released pending trial, he was arrested again after he allegedly took money from an elderly lady (right), who turned out to be a 38-year-old policewoman acting as a decoy. Again he was released pending trial.
Willie looks like a child and even wept like one in the police car, but he and trouble had been acquainted for years. According to his mother, from the time Willie was 9 or 10 he was arrested as often as two or three times a month for stealing. Instead of attending school he roams the streets with the Young Skulls, a youth gang of which he is chieftain. He can neither read nor write, and misspells his own name. "I've been in court so many times with him, but they won't put him in a home," says his mother. "The last time, I took him to the police station and told them to take him. They said they didn't want him. They only want him when he kills."
After taking a purse from a policewoman whose disguises and skillful acting have resulted in the arrests of dozens of muggers, Willie was collared by a plainclothes officer who slapped him in handcuffs (above) On the way to the police station, the leader of the Young Skulls broke into tears and called for his mother (right).
Upon being arrested, Willie was furious that two boys who had been with him were let go at the scene. The police thought there was not enough evidence to hold them. Within 24 hours of his arrest, Willie himself was back on the streets.
The South Bronx, Willie Millan's home, is one of the toughest parts of New York, a moonscape of burned-out buildings, rubble-strewn vacant lots and rundown public housing. Although diligent efforts by police and other agencies have reduced the number of Bronx youth gangs from a high of 154 in 1972 to 25 today, packs of adolescent toughs still terrorize entire neighborhoods. "Some of these guys will do anything," said a police sergeant on the gang squad. "I swear they've cut people's hearts out."
Willie's mother brought him to New York from Puerto Rico as an infant. He has never seen his father, who, according to the family, is serving time for murder in Sing Sing. His four younger sisters and brother were fathered by a succession of other men, one of whom was murdered himself. The family lives on welfare payments, and although their own apartment is kept reasonably clean and neat, the eight story apartment building they live in is dirty, squalid and insecure.
Wearing his customary sneakers-the police call them 'felony shoes"- Willie posed with his four younger sisters and brother in the living room of their three-bedroom apartment. None of the other children have been in trouble with the law. Said his mother, "When Willie is home Willie don't fight and Willie don't act tough. But I know what he's like."
At home Willie seems a model son. He hugs his sisters affectionately, consoles his little brother when he cries, and takes care of his German shepherd. He makes his own bed, goes to the store when his mother asks him, and even helps neighborhood ladies carry their bags. He does cry a lot, complaining of pains in his head and neck. (According to Willie's mother, a doctor once told her that the boy had brain damage.)
But Willie becomes another person when he gets out on the street with the Young Skulls, some of whose members have been charged with sexual abuse, rape, assault with weapons, burglary and possession of guns. Willie and his friends patrol their turf armed with chains, knives, brass knuckles and gloves loaded with sewn-in pockets of lead shot. Of his own weapon Willie likes to brag, "This knife has killed many." Whether or not Willie has ever used his knife to kill, he uses it frequently to carve swastikas and iron crosses into tree trunks, without even understanding the significance of these symbols. ("That's just our sign, man. it don't mean nothin'.") Although he is among the smallest of the gang, Willie rules the members like a pint-sized Don Corleone, sending them for beer, even demanding money from them. He gets it because they are afraid of him. The other Skulls call him Crazy Willie or Willie the T. The T stands for thief, he explains proudly, "because I steal a lot." His ambition, he says, is "to be famous and have lots of women, all over me."
When Willie's date to appear in court arrived, be failed to turn up, and the police warrant squad arrested him a week later. He was held in jail for a few days. On his next court appearance he pleaded guilty to a much reduced charge and was released.
Clowning with other members of his gang, Willie, in the black hat, showed off his knife. When roaming his turf Willie wears the gang's "colors"- a denim jacket with cut-off sleeves and the legend "Young Skulls" emblazoned on the back. Said a local police officer: 'A 16-year-old in the South Bronx is the same as a 40-year-old in Manhattan,- for as much as he's known and he's seen. He knows the numbers man, the narcotics man, the pimps- the important people in the community."
A pitiful girl in deep trouble
Marsha Graham was caught by a house detective in Foley's Department Store (left), which is well known in Houston for its determined prosecution of shoplifters.
Dirt-poor, ill-educated, sporadically unemployed and an unwed mother to boot, Marsha Graham had no troubles with the law during her teens. But when Marsha turned 22 it all came home to roost--she was caught in a Houston department store attempting to shoplift a $30 jumpsuit. She spent the next 48 hours being shuttled between city and county jails, interrogated, photographed and strip-searched. In jail, a court investigator tried to decide if she could be released without bail--which she could not possibly have raised. Although he discovered a two-year-old arrest warrant which Marsha didn't know existed--she had violated Texas law by living with a man while receiving $5,000 in welfare payments over four years--he found enough in Marsha's favor to arrange her release.
Once out of jail, Marsha seemed incapable of taking some simple but necessary steps in her own behalf. The public defender found her a lawyer who would take the case without fee, but it took three days--and some prodding from friends- before Marsha phoned the lawyer. On the day of her trial, she wasn't awake by the time she was supposed to leave for court. The lawyer told Marsha to bring her four children along, thinking that they might arouse sympathy, but Marsha left two of them at home because she couldn't find their shoes.
On the shoplifting charge, the judge fined Marsha $100. The $5,000 she owed to the welfare department was reduced to $600 and the judge told her she must repay it over two years at a rate of $25 per month.
But after the trial Marsha failed to find a job. Her 20-year-old common-law husband did find one, but quit after a week. On the day that Marsha was supposed to begin paying her fines she turned up in court empty-handed, but her lawyer won her a brief extension. She returned three weeks later, still with no money to pay her fines. The judge sent her to jail briefly; then she was released when her husband got enough money to cover her fines and court costs. But she still faced two years of probation and welfare repayments.
Marsha was photographed on entering Houston's city jail to provide a record of her physical condition- a precaution against accusations of police brutality. Later, in the "tank" at the county jail, Marsha sat with three other prisoners while she waited for word about being released.
When Marsha was interrogated about the jumpsuit in the store detective's office (right), she responded with tears and denials. "I just tried it on," she told the detective, "and when I came out I couldn't find a saleslady. " But Marsha had only 30 cents in cash, no checkbook or credit cards, and the jumpsuit was tucked in a shopping bag from another store.
After her initial release from jail and before her trial, Marsha was reunited with her 2-year-old son and three other children at the home of her mother, who will have to take care of them if Marsha is incarcerated again.