Little Criminals

What do you do with a little tyke who throws a rock at another kid? In Dade County, you prosecute him.

When Derrod Bush was called before a judge last Tuesday, just before noon, chuckles rippled through the courtroom. That might seem odd, given that Bush has been charged with aggravated assault, a third-degree felony that carries a maximum punishment of five years under the state's supervision. But consider Derrod Bush.

He stands a shade over four feet and tips the scales at 60 pounds, with shoes. Heavy shoes. At nine years old, the third grader barely looks six. His entrance into court was not what you'd call menacing - his father nudged him the whole way, then helped him climb onto a chair. Bush's legs dangled a foot off the floor. His head was barely visible over the defendant's table. The police report against little Derrod alleged he had thrown rocks at another boy, but the Dade State Attorney's Office phrased it with a bit more panache, charging Bush with brandishing "a deadly weapon" in a fashion both "felonious" and "unlawful." While Judge Tom Petersen was informed of the charges, Bush looked on in confused terror, sucking his thumb nervously. To Assistant Public Defender Pam Ransome, it was like watching Lady Liberty sit on a whoopee cushion. "That's it," Ransome muttered. "I quit." The judge was likewise bemused. "Case dismissed," he quipped, "due to size." The courtroom erupted with laughter.

But for Ransome and her fellow public defenders, the surge in kiddie cases like Bush's is no one-liner. "You see it more and more - people using the hammer of the law to take care of kid's stuff that should never get here," Ransome says. "Honestly, a lot of these kids, the little ones, don't even know what's going on. They aren't even old enough to formulate the intent to commit a criminal act." A case in point: the same morning Bush shuffled into court, justice came calling on a seven-year-old girl. She, too, had been charged with aggravated assault for throwing "very large rocks" during a dispute. As several dumbstruck spectators sitting in the witness room commented, the wide-eyed whippersnapper wasn't much heavier than a "very large rock" herself. The case has since been dropped.®MDNM¯

Ransome attributes the upswing in such cases to a victim's-rights movement gone haywire and to prosecutors' niggling fears of accountability. "Prosecutors might think on an individual basis that a case like this is ridiculous, but then they've got a victim yelling for justice, somebody ready to go to the media and try to make the office look bad. Unfortunately, instead of saying `Forget this, this is just too crazy,' prosecutors push the thing forward," the defender says acidly. "It's not like cocaine is literally lining our streets or murderers are waiting for trials." After just eight months in juvenile court, Ransome already can relate half a dozen peewee prosecutions. Most of her colleagues have lulus of their own. Recent highlights include:

*A seven-year-old boy charged with both a second-degree and a first-degree felony for aggravated battery on a senior citizen. The child, a hearty three-and-a-half-footer, allegedly threw a rock through a window, hitting an older woman in the stomach and causing a minor bruise. Or, as the state attorney's office conveys it, "did wantonly, or maliciously throw a missile or stone or other hard object which would produce death or great bodily harm to wit: A ROCK."

*A ten-year-old Cuban refugee who allegedly threw a rock through a neighbor's window. The neighbor pressed criminal-mischief charges against the boy after she unsuccessfully sought fifteen dollars in damages from the defendant's mother, who claims to be indigent. When juvenile court Judge Steve Robinson heard the case recently, he pondered its legal intricacies briefly, then divined an ingenious solution. He pulled fifteen dollars out of his pocket and proceeded to count it out - Monty Hall-style - offering to settle the matter then and there. Instead, he wound up removing himself from the case, claiming he could not arbitrate it fairly. It has since been reassigned to another judge.

Stephen Harper, chief of the public defender's juvenile division, has a name for such cases: "Theater of the Absurd." He credits the most outrageous performances to what he terms "ritualistic prosecuting," prosecutors' tendency to charge first and figure out what happened later. "They look at the act and not the kid," Harper says, holding up as evidence a state-attorney's petition alleging delinquency, and listing the defendant as being either seven or seventeen years old. "Sometimes I'm tempted to bring a stuffed animal to court and see what would happen. If the charges are right, would they pursue prosecution with it, too?"

Leon Botkin, juvenile-division chief of the State Attorney's Office, admits there are times that a frivolous case will "slip through" and wind up in court. But he insists prosecutors make every effort to find a diversionary program - involving community service and/or counseling - before prosecuting the court's youngest defendants. "For every case that ends up in court, you're not seeing all the complaints we plea out," he stresses. Though he admits there may be a rise in the number of cases brought against pre-teens, he cites a huge, overall leap in referrals to his office, from 9000 in 1984 to 17,000 last year.

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