The Little Thief
At an age when most of the girls in her Liberty City housing project were treading the slippery path toward teen pregnancy, Carrie Jones was burning rubber down a less-traveled road. It wasn't that the slim tomboy disliked girls. She just didn't share their interests:
"They was into boys. I was into cars."
Literally. By age thirteen Carrie had become a celebrated anomaly within the inner-city fraternity for whom grand theft auto represents a lucrative distraction. Apprenticed by a 23-year-old pro, she quickly mastered the nimble rudiments of "sticking" a car, from the gentle pop of a vent window to the grinding surrender of a steering-wheel casing to the sweet squeal of ignition. "I wanted a car, I took a car," she says flippantly. Aspiring thieves clamored for her advice. Carrie Jones was a natural.
Much of her talent, like that of her colleagues, lay in the fearless apathy she acquired growing up. Orphaned in 1987, when her unwed mother died suddenly due to complications arising from asthma and scardosis, a rare lung disease, Carrie moved in with her grandmother, Hazel Jones. A proud, determined woman, Jones says her problems with Carrie grew out of typical squabbling: "She wanted to go out with her friends. I wanted her to improve her grades first. This is a girl, you have to understand, that's been in school since she was four years old. She was an A and B student."
By 1989 Carrie was regularly skipping school and had begun running away from home for weeks at a time. Hazel Jones says she made numerous efforts to seek help as her control over Carrie's behavior deteriorated and the girl's delinquency escalated. At first she limited her inquiries to the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), but she soon grew frustrated. "These people took me to Hell and back and I still couldn't get any help," Jones recalls. "I talked to everybody HRS had. I went to the Juvenile Justice Center. I even went to [State Senator] Carrie Meek's office." Jones wanted Carrie declared incorrigible so she could be placed in a residential program far away from the Liberty City project where they lived. "I wanted to get her help before she became a delinquent. They told me they couldn't do anything because she hadn't committed a crime."
HRS officials say confidentiality forbids them from discussing any specifics in a juvenile's case. But court records show Carrie Jones was seen by agency caseworkers for "beyond control" behavior on three occasions, dating back to 1986. Each time, she was referred to "other agencies." In July of 1987, after she was caught shoplifting, HRS caseworkers referred Carrie to a program for first offenders. But such slaps on the wrist did nothing to slow Carrie's swift climb up the police blotter. And as she careened from discipline problems and retail theft to robbery and car heists, her relationship with Hazel Jones disintegrated. In July of 1989, Carrie left her grandmother's house for good.
That's when her thievery kicked into overdrive. "I'd steal or rob to get money from anywhere I could, people on the street. The money would last two or three weeks. I spent it on junk food," Carrie recalls, narrowing eyes that seem not so much tempered by experience, as hardened. "Sometimes we'd steal a car for fun and take it to the beach. Sometimes we'd sell the parts. Sometimes I just needed a place to rest my head. If [the police] took one away, I'd go out the next day and get another one."
Such impunity, however, made Carrie a sloppy criminal. During the summer and fall of 1989, three different police departments caught her. On August 9 she stole a car from a man's front yard, only to be spotted a few hours later, driving around the same neighborhood. Two weeks later she was nabbed in another hot vehicle, speeding down NW 79th Street. Both times she was released into the custody of a friend. On Friday, October 13, the day Carrie was pulled over in a blue sedan she had stolen a month earlier, City of Miami police decided she'd best await her court date in secure detention. "I told them my name and they said, `For you to be thirteen, you done did a lot of stuff,'" Carrie recounts. "They fingerprinted me and took my picture. They said, `You goin' to jail.' I was crying, but I didn't care."
As far as Carrie can tell, the juvenile justice system that has tangled her life for the past two years feels the same way. Forgotten for months on end, shuttled from program to program, and stubbornly heedless of the state's rehabilitative coaxing, the ex-car thief stands as a harrowing gauge of Dade County's decrepit crusade against delinquency.
Taken into custody after her October 13 arrest, Carrie spent the next two months languishing in the county's Juvenile Detention Center, on the northwest fringe of Miami. In November she pleaded guilty to the three auto-theft charges. But by the time she came before juvenile court Judge Tom Petersen on December 1 for sentencing, she had spent her birthday, Halloween, and Thanksgiving in lockup.
To Petersen, who became a juvenile judge in March of 1989, the Carrie Jones case was to be a choking baptism into the defects of the state's response to delinquency. Alarmed at the number of weeks she had already spent in limbo, he sentenced Carrie to a residential delinquent program, an order he reiterated December 5 and 7. Though state law mandated that Carrie be placed in a program within five days of the judge's sentence, Carrie remained in detention another two weeks. "It was rough at first," Carrie says in the petulant rasp she reserves for such recollections. "But after a while I just called it home."
On December 21, Petersen demanded that HRS take immediate action. The agency placed Carrie in a Cutler Ridge foster home. Ten days later she ran away. Although HRS was informed the next day, it took the agency three weeks to seek an order from Petersen to have her picked up. But the judge says neither caseworkers nor police -- who are officially responsible for rounding up runaway delinquents -- made any attempt to find her. More than a month after Petersen's order, Carrie wandered into court on her own. She told the judge she had heard from her aunt that a pick-up order had been issued and she wondered about the status of her case. With no place to stay, Carrie had been staying with friends, sleeping on porches and in cars when necessary.
Outraged, Petersen filed a criminal contempt motion on February 28 against HRS, claiming agents had broken state law and failed to follow court order. "I wanted to hold HRS accountable for its actions," the judge recalls. He certainly got their attention -- all the way to Tallahassee. The case dragged on for seven months. At one point Petersen brought charges against then-HRS Secretary Gregory Coler. In a series of motions for dismissal, HRS lawyers argued that Carrie's prolonged stay in detention was not a basis for contempt. They noted that the programs to which she was referred were full and asserted that Petersen's proceeding was, in fact, an attempt "to effectuate systemic change."
"That was the whole point," asserts Petersen, whose concern for the children he oversees has become the stuff of lore around Dade's Juvenile Justice Center. "To show that the system wasn't working." The most obvious problem, Petersen says, is the juvenile system's inability to deal with girls, especially in Dade, where there is no residential program for female offenders. But the contempt hearing also revealed a host of subtle problems. Carrie's initial HRS counselor, for instance, admitted she did not recall the state law requiring that a child be placed in a program no more than five days after a judge's order. Counselors from HRS's delinquent and dependent branches had never held a mandatory conference to coordinate their plan for Carrie. And one of the programs recommended for the girl, who was homeless at the time, was nonresidential. "If the system's going to make any sense," Petersen stresses, "you can't let kids rot in detention centers and become totally turned off to our efforts. And you can't forget about a fourteen-year-old kid who lives on the streets. If we really care about Carrie Jones, we can't just wait for her to come back into the system when she gets rearrested."
Petersen says his unorthodox legal maneuver, and his strident advocacy on Carrie's behalf, also bucked the unspoken power structure in juvenile court, "the idea," he says, "that what we're supposed to do as judges is sit there and issue pick-up orders and follow HRS's recommendations." But by October of 1990, Petersen had vowed to change his tack. Figuring he could do more good working with the agency than against it, and heartened by the previous spring's passage of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, which promised to address many of the system's flaws, he dismissed his motion. "There was a little while there when everyone was getting along great," Petersen remembers. In November, a scant month later, the honeymoon ended. Desperate to mitigate fiscal shortfalls and a slumping tax base, legislators gutted the new act's allocations.
The decision was merely the latest setback in a grim chronology that has seen delinquency steadily fade from public consciousness. Petersen recalls an era when rehabilitating up-and-coming criminals was juvenile court's primary role. But in the past fifteen years, he says, the new sensitivity to child abuse has shoved delinquency to the back burner. With the unwitting aid of the media -- always anxious to hype a tragic tot story -- shrinking resources have been funneled into "dependency" matters, those that involve child victims who are dependent on the state. Yet as attention has waned, arrests of delinquents have rocketed; last year's 17,000 arrests yielded 27 percent of all Dade's criminal indictments.
This May a Dade County grand jury issued a scathing, 30-page report sketching a woeful picture of the county's delinquency response system: HRS counselors so overburdened they can't conduct proper intake interviews, residential programs and specially designated schools for delinquents that operate as "little more than warehouses," a regular school system unable to help more than ten percent of its at-risk kids, and state legislators content to spend more on incarceration than prevention.
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.
Harris says breaking through to kids such as Carrie Jones, with whom he worked throughout 1990, is all the more difficult because not only are they perpetrators, they are usually victims of abuse and neglect. "What they need is one person they can trust, who matters to them," he says. Too often what they encounter, Harris laments, is a shifting cast of counselors unable to communicate with one another, let alone formulate a coherent rehabilitation plan for the child.
That sense of chaos was not lost on Carrie Jones: "I didn't even know half the stuff that was going on," she says now. "All I know is I was getting shipped from program to program. It's like, this lady come up to me the other day in court and she said, `Do you remember me?' I said 'No!' cuz I don't." Though her prospects looked bright in early 1990, when she settled with a friend's family in the James E. Scott project and was named student of the month at Jan Mann Opportunity School, she soon began skipping classes and disobeying the rules set out by her new guardian.
Adding to the schism was Carrie's talent for manipulation, a skill honed by months of copping room and board. A beautiful girl with bittersweet-chocolate skin and a gorgeous, if rarely imparted, smile, she was able to wrap the most seasoned social workers around her little finger. "Everybody in the office loved Carrie Jones," recalls Georgia Ayers, executive director of Last Chance, a nonresidential program for delinquents that supervised Carrie for several months in 1990. "I guess she was the star of our show. She could worm her way right into your heart. But once she left us, she did as she pleased." Ayers attributes Carrie's rambunctious side to influences in the Scott project, a hotbed of delinquency neighbors call "the Canyon." The nickname refers both to the project's isolation from a main thoroughfare and to the uphill battle faced by residents seeking to escape its dilapidated environs.
"I remember when the projects were the most elite place for black people to be because they had running water and bathtubs," says Ayers ruefully. "Now you got social workers afraid to even go near them." Too often, she fears, social agencies -- hers included -- write off project kids without considering ways to improve their home life. "In Carrie's case I was negative toward the mere fact of her being [in the projects]. All I saw was a house full of sorry-behind boys not working, and women on welfare. But maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should have gone in there and tried to give a helping hand to those people Carrie was clinging to."
Or, more precisely, the one person. By the summer of 1990, Carrie had moved in with Delores Walker, a stout matriarch who has spent eighteen years caring for the lost children spawned by the Canyon's fractured families. "She came here one day with my daughter and later it come out that she ain't got no home," says Walker in a lazy-tongued lilt that marks her Georgia upbringing. "I told her as long as she have respect, she can stay. Lord, I done raised up so many kids, how am I gonna turn one away?"
Walker, hobbled by polio at age nine, can't work and depends on food stamps and money earned by her adopted children. Although high blood pressure and a recent stroke have forced her to stop taking in children, her small, three-bedroom house is overrun with them: two pig-tailed toddlers, left for the week by their mother, padding up and down the stairs, chanting a commercial jingle; assorted teen-agers drifting through the kitchen, where barbecued chicken bakes along with cornbread; a six-month-old girl sitting on Walker's voluminous lap. "I got papers on this one," says Walker, scooping up Aisha, a blue-eyed mulatto, in arms thicker than the child's torso. "Her mother's messed up on drugs. She signed her over to me."
Behind on her bills, Walker keeps the lights off in her cluttered living room, obscuring a six-foot crack in one wall that has been futilely taped together. While her grown-up sons breeze in and out of the room, she talks of her abandoned effort to move into a "HUD house," of broken hinges and light fixtures that "HUD promised to fix," uttering the acronym as if referring to some perpetually unreliable superintendent. Despite the disrepair of her house, Walker's own rectitude is unquestioned among her children and neighbors. And unlike previous guardians, she seems to have a measure of emotional leverage over Carrie Jones. "Two girls came here and I know they be high," Walker says with a frown. "I told Carrie, `You don't have to do nothing. If you want a beer or something, I'll go along with that. But that other stuff -- uh-uh,
uh-uh.' So I seen her drop them two. I didn't tell her to. She did it herself."
As for Carrie, her stance has been plain since Walker took her in. "I told all them counselors: `If I can't be with Miss Walker, I don't want to be with anybody. If you keep placing me in foster homes, I'm gonna keep runnin'.' There ain't nobody who I call my friend out here. But Miss Walker, she my friend."
The message never did sink in. Throughout 1990 counselors working with Carrie pushed for placement in an out-of-town delinquency program. Judge Petersen was reluctant. "We need to solve Carrie's problems in the Scott project, not at some program upstate," he reasoned. But when Carrie started the 1990 school year by missing the first month of classes, Petersen relented. By late October the girl was on her way to Alachua Halfway House in Gainesville, one of the programs recommended in HRS's original 1989 report.
Carrie herself dismisses her two-month stint at Alachua as if shooing away a bothersome fly, but she did well there at first. Problems came up at Christmas, when Carrie was scheduled to visit Miami. She wanted to spend the holiday with Delores Walker. HRS wanted her to stay elsewhere, because a Foster Care home study conducted by the agency had recently concluded Walker's dwelling did not meet state requirements for licensing. "At one point Judge Petersen and I jumped in the car and went out to do our survey of Miss Walker's place," recalls Stephen Harper, the chief assistant public defender for Dade's juvenile division who handled Carrie's case. "What did we find? Like anyone else in that project, Miss Walker is poor and has trouble paying her rent. But she cared about Carrie and that was obvious."
Jeanne James, an administrator for HRS's Foster Care program, says policy forbids her to discuss the specific decision to deny Walker a foster-care license. "Believe me, we bend over backwards to approve a home, especially with a child like this," she says. "But there are some things we can't waive. We would be negligent if we did."
Carrie was placed in a foster home, and she promptly ran away to Delores Walker's. Within a week of her return to Alachua, she ran again. Judge Petersen issued another pick-up order, but court records show that as far as the state was concerned, Carrie remained a runaway for nearly six months.
"It was ridiculous," Petersen says. "We all knew she was at Miss Walker's but no one went out to get her. As far as the system was concerned, her case was over. I think there's really a sense of relief in the system every time we issue one of those pick-up orders, because there's one less kid to deal with." Earlier this year, Petersen had responded to HRS workers' rightful claims that police are responsible for pick-up orders by personally telephoning Metro-Dade police. "Here I am, a judge, trying to get a pick-up order executed and I couldn't even get the person I needed on the phone," Petersen recalls. Police wouldn't have had to go far to find Carrie Jones. The back door to Delores Walker's apartment is about twenty paces from Metro-Dade's Team Police substation, a base for officers who patrol the Scott project.
In June Petersen sent a message to Carrie through a friend of hers who'd ended up in juvenile court. Petersen wanted her back in school and promised not to lock her up if she would appear in court. Carrie did come to see him, and he placed her at the Try Center, a local school for troubled youths. "That place was for boys," is Carrie's only trenchant memory of the center. She missed twelve days during her first month and soon gave up altogether, reclaiming her well-worn status as a runaway. She remained "in hiding" at Walker's home as the current school year commenced, afraid, she says, that if she went to school HRS would ship her to a foster home. Given the results of a second HRS Foster Care home study in July, her fears were likely justified. Investigators again deemed Walker's house unsuitable.
"They told me it was because I didn't have a phone and the fire extinguisher was too small. They said HUD wouldn't let her stay on my lease and that they didn't want her living in the same house with my eighteen-year-old boy," says Walker with a shrug. "But my boy is like a brother to Carrie. He ain't no boyfriend. To be honest, Carrie's the only girl that ain't pregnant around here. The only one. One of them girls ain't nothing but, what, thirteen?"
Indeed, Carrie's resistance to the liabilities of romance appears to hold firm. Despite the unmistakable curves of femininity, she walks with a swagger that tends to warn off suitors. "I don't have no boyfriend," she snaps. "Don't get me wrong. I have friends as boys. Them's the best kind of friends to hang around. It sounds like boys get me in trouble, but look, the boys done taught me a lot. Girls haven't taught me anything but how to lay up and make a baby. And once boys put a baby in you, they leave."
Carrie was introduced firsthand to that particular axiom at age five, when her father disappeared. But in the Canyon, the lesson is reinforced with alarming regularity. Earlier this month, a friend of Carrie's found out her nineteen-year-old boyfriend had been shot and killed by police in an aborted drug deal on NW 58th Avenue. According to Carrie's friend, who relates the circumstances of her young lover's death with calm detachment, he had already fathered three children.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Marco Rubio on Cecil the Lion: "But What About Abortion?"
- Dolphins Bring Back Old Logo and Throwback Uniforms for One Game
- Hillary Clinton to Speak at FIU on Friday (She's Just Not Sure If You're Invited or Not)