Kiddie cages just temporary crime stopper

Sunday, August 16, 1998

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Authorities are trying to find a cage small enough for a murderer who weighs less than 60 pounds, just in case the Chicago boys are found guilty.

In Jonesboro, Ark., the defendant in the schoolyard shootings was too short to see over the judge's bench. His accomplice read a statement, his voice cracking, USA Today reports, "from tears and early adolescence."

After a 7-year-old Westwood girl was attacked Wednesday night by six little boys, Cincinnati police Lt. Stephen Luebbe told The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tanya Bricking, "It just seems that the victims are getting younger and younger. And the perpetrators are getting younger and younger."

Back in circulation

The Arkansas children, ages 12 and 14, have been convicted. Authorities must build a new or modified facility to keep them past the age of 18. At most, they will be incarcerated until they are 21. So we don't know exactly when they'll be released. But we do know that they will get out.

It would be comforting to hear somebody talking with as much fervor about rehabilitating these kids -- changing them -- as about putting them away. Not for their sake. For ours. They'll be back in circulation in a frighteningly short time.

We have a brief window of opportunity to civilize them, to render them less lethal. But the discourse rages around their punishment, not their future as free citizens.

We already know cages are merely temporary protection from criminals. The predators will be free again one day to prey. The burglars to burgle. The batterers to batter. That we know. Cages are not notable agents of change, except that when the door opens the occupant usually comes out meaner than ever.

Maybe it's hopeless. Maybe you really can't teach an old dog new tricks. But what about young dogs?

Whose guys?

Bernard Lefkowitz's book Our Guys tells in chilling detail about the rape in 1989 of a mentally retarded 17-year-old girl by a group of her high school's star athletes. The Glen Ridge, N.J., jocks used a broom handle and baseball bat.

Thirteen boys were present during the assault. Some bargained -- community service and expunged records in return for ratting out their friends. Four were found guilty of sex crimes. Three were sentenced to prison, and one got three years' probation and 200 hours of community service. Personally, I would not like to be in the community serviced by 200 hours of this kid's time. Or by any of his buddies.

Their behavior began in grade school, when some of them forced this same girl to eat dog feces. As they grew up, they didn't get any better. Just bigger.

No prosecutor, no parent, no judge demanded therapy or counseling. Nobody ever said, "Wait a minute. How much time do you suppose it would take to turn these sickos into civilized human beings?"

When we find out -- for sure -- who killed little Ryan Harris, stuffed her underpants in her mouth and filled her nostrils with grass and leaves, we need to do something more useful than lock them up in a Cook County Jail for a few years. Even if it's expensive, even if it takes time. This is not coddling. This is survival.

We should find out why some children are rapists and murderers. I'll bet their teachers have some ideas. We might remember this if we have to choose between buying football uniforms or hiring more school counselors, if we have to decide whether we'd like our taxes to fund public education or private sports teams.

Current life expectancy for an American citizen is 76.1 years. Doesn't it make sense to work hardest on thugs who start early? Change them. Lavish money on their education, shrinks, counselors -- whatever it takes.

Because we can never build enough cages, large or small.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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