The Little Thief

But while the grim reports pile up, Petersen says the roots of the crisis stretch into Miami's ghettos. Weaned on the noble principles of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the judge remembers working with Dade's delinquents 25 years ago as a VISTA volunteer and later as Dade's first juvenile court public defender. Since then, he maintains, the inner city --

and its children -- have changed dramatically. Strategies to combat delinquency have not.

"The story of Carrie Jones, our inability to help this girl, is the story of a system that is not so much evil, or lazy, as just plain irrelevant," Petersen charges. "We're dealing with delinquents using the Boys Town model, this idea that kids are just temporarily off the track and everybody's working together -- the priest, the family, the community -- to right them. But the fact is delinquency today is about inner-city black kids without families or role models, kids our society would just as soon forget. What meaning does Boys Town have when Carrie Jones is living in Boyz N the Hood?"

Two years into her retirement, sixteen-year-old Carrie Jones's memories of her grand-theft glory are still fresh, her recollections summoned with an air of illicit nostalgia. "One time I went out with these boys and they wanted to see if I could really steal a car," she recalls, shedding for a moment the sullen mask with which she usually faces the world. "I started to, and they went 'round the corner to wait. The whole thing took me about four minutes and when I brought the car around, them boys be saying, `You must have had the keys.' I said, `If I had the keys, would it have taken this long?!'"

With equal enthusiasm, Carrie tells of other such episodes: The night she and her posse almost pinched a Miami city commissioner's car; the time a band of socially conscious thieves took a U-Haul truck filled with appliances, parked it in a project parking lot and let the masses have at it. Most thrilling of all was the morning she found herself in a made-for-TV police chase. As lights swirled blue and red in her periphery and sirens Dopplered through the streets, she hunched in the front seat of a stolen Oldsmobile, a cap pulled low over her brow. "We was out stealing cars by the airport and we got ourselves on a high-speed chase," she recalls. "We made it down to Jackson Hospital and hit a dead end, some kind of lake. I rolled under the car and heard the police saying, `Freeze,' and these boys jumped into the water and started swimming. When I heard the police take off, I ran through that hospital trying to change my clothes all around. And I got a cab driver to take me all the way home. I told him my family had left me at the hospital. I told him I was lost."

The ex-larcenist relates the latest street scuttlebutt like a cranky grandparent longing for the good old days. "Nowadays, boys around the neighborhood, they stick a car just to do a crime in and abandon it. I taught some of those boys how to take cars, the younger ones, and now they're taking them left and right," she says, making no effort to conceal her pride. "They're taking Cherokees. I know one boy that got a Jaguar. But they still haven't figured out how to get into a Lexus," she says. Then, suddenly lowering her voice, she adds, "Sometimes they be trying to make me go do it again."

The bitter irony of Carrie's world, Petersen observes, is that its decay was accelerated by desegregation. "When I came to Miami in 1966, the issues in juvenile court were essentially the same. But back then you had a stronger neighborhood structure created by segregation. When those barriers broke down, the upwardly mobile people, the lawyers and doctors, left the inner city," says the judge. Those blacks who got left behind, Petersen adds, have had to compete with waves of industrious immigrants, most recently Haitians and West Indians, who latch on to blue-collar jobs, amass savings, and head down the road to suburban prosperity. Compounding the barren economic landscape, the streets lined with fast-food joints and liquor depots posing as grocery stores, has been a feminization of poverty that has transformed public housing projects into villages of women and small children. "Twenty-five years ago in Carrie Jones's neighborhood, 85 percent of the heads of households were two-parent families and 15 percent were single parents. Now it's flipped," Petersen sighs.

Within these marginalized outposts, where 90 percent of Dade's delinquents are groomed, social workers don't come to visit. They come to represent. "People in those projects are perceptive," says Ken Harris, a senior delinquency counselor for HRS. "It's like, `Are you here to help me or are you here because your job says you have to be?' If you can't go in there just on a social visit without feeling threatened, you can't go in there and work with them." A tall, soft-spoken man, Harris, like other black caseworkers, has spent a decade trying to bridge the gap between the state's clumsy child-service bureaucracy and inner-city delinquents. At the age of 35, he is recovering from a heart attack doctors say was triggered by stress.

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