The Little Thief

While Petersen admits Walker's house is far from the ideal setting for rehabilitating a juvenile delinquent, he insists the state should be trying to work with Walker to improve Carrie's home life instead of threatening to uproot her yet again. "We can talk all we like, but Carrie has veto power over all our plans," says Petersen, for whom a foot-high stack of case files -- all of them devoted to Carrie Jones -- provide the proof. "She votes with her feet. And she keeps running back to Miss Walker, so we might as well give this woman the help she needs." Amid swirling doubts, he is encouraged that Carrie has not become pregnant or had any brushes with the law in the two years since her initial arrests.

It was hope that prompted Petersen to drive his Ford Taurus to Delores Walker's house earlier this month to entice Carrie to return to court once more. He took her off "runaway" status and gave her $70 from juvenile court funds so she could buy new clothes, on the condition that she re-enroll at Jan Mann. Though she is nearly two years behind in school, Carrie says she looks forward to hitting the books, if only for a reprieve from the monotony of Walker's unair-conditioned apartment.

But Delores Walker herself fears that the ghosts haunting Carrie will not be put to rest through diligent study. "I don't know how she was messed with when she was comin' up, but I know there's something in there that needs to come out. I keep telling all these counselors, `I think y'all are going the wrong way -- you need to go through here,'" she whispers, pressing a hand to her heart. "You got to get your mind clear before you can do good in school."

Petersen says the same philosophy applies to Dade's delinquency system. He praises the progress made in some areas: Construction of a residential program for girls in Dade, one of the few expenditures not purged from the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, is pending; the judge's own group, Teaching and Rehabilitating Our Youth (TROY), formed earlier this year, has been recruiting a network of community volunteers to work with delinquents. The nonprofit organization has lobbied to ease overcrowding of Dade residential programs by forcing administrators to accept only local referrals. But the judge, well into his second year on the bench, laments the system's chronic resistance to change. "Juvenile court is used to holding itself out as The Solution and it's hard for us to accept candidly that we have no solution," says Petersen. "If we're going to survive, we're going to have to go out and organize communities and solve these problems where they start, not let them get tangled up in our legal bureaucracy."

Others are less optimistic. Public defender Steve Harper: "My weary battle cry is that the system is not the cure, it's the disease. And you've got to remember, Carrie Jones had the rare luxury of a judge's attention and a judge's rage. There are so many other little kids I represented that are now doing hard time. And I could have told you that five years ago, because the system has simply abused them."

Greg Johnson, HRS's new program administrator for delinquency services, agrees the system is in dire need of reform and promises a new approach in Dade that will rely less on paperwork and incarceration and more on prevention strategies and community involvement. "With the budget cuts HRS has faced, we're being forced to be creative," Johnson says, citing proposed innovations that range from an assessment office in Dade's Juvenile Detention Center to a program that mobilizes neighborhood churches to work with nascent delinquents.

The promises mean little to Hazel Jones, who remains estranged from her granddaughter, despite living only a few blocks from Delores Walker's house. "I still have a picture of her graduation from kindergarten," Jones says shakily. "And I look at that and ask myself, `What did I do wrong?' I just wanted my granddaughter to get an education. I know she needs a lot of help. But she's not a lost cause."

Carrie Jones's own thoughts about her past and future remain tightly bottled, released only in flickering moments of indiscretion. In the somber darkness of Miss Walker's living room, she will disclose her aim to become a research scientist so she can cure diseases like the one that killed her mother, or choke up momentarily about the dissolution of her relationship with her grandmother. In the midst of pantomiming how she used to bust windows with a spark plug, she will pause suddenly to recall the white coeds she saw at a pizza parlor, and wonder out loud, "You think they go to the college?"

When Carrie turns eighteen, her name will vanish from juvenile court records. Petersen says she might indeed wind up going to college, or on the streets, or pregnant, or channeled into what is ominously referred to as "the adult system." Whichever, the Judge says, staring hard across an immutable distance, the state will no longer have to pretend quite so hard to care about her.

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