The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
November 4, 1993
Juvenile court sheds light on problems outside
Two 12-year-old boys and one 14-year-old boy stood before a juvenile court judge charged with the armed robbery of a 30-year-old man. They used a toy gun.
"I held the gun . . . I said, `Give it up,' " confessed the 14-year-old when asked about his role in the crime.
The first 12-year-old, his attention divided between the judge and various courtroom sights, then admitted his role.
"I patted his pockets and handed the money to [his accomplice]," he mumbled.
Judge Madeline Griffin, holding up two toy guns tied together with a property room tag, paused glaring at the boys.
"Do you understand what you were doing?" fired Griffin. "That man could have had a gun, pulled it out and killed all three of you."
Despite her obvious agitation, Griffin says cases like these are by no means unique. A day in her court will turn up this and much more.
At 9 a.m. the shuffle of solicitors, public defenders, probation officers and alleged juvenile criminals begins. Children, brought up in hand-cuffs, are led to small holding cells decorated with penciled drawings of swastikas and various grafitti.
Court deputy Rick Bowland says that before the handcuffing of youths on their way from detention to court was made policy two weeks ago, he and one other officer used to average three "tussles" a week with juveniles. He says the use of handcuffs, now, symbolizes the growing trend.
"That's where one threw a security officer through the wall." said Bowland pointing to holes and large cracks in the hallway walls of the court. "They're out of control - a lot of it is gang-related, a lot of it is family values they're not getting."
Earlier that morning, the street gang influence was on full display as a 16-year-old boy was sentenced for "using fighting words" against his mother. Since his last appearance in court in early September, the boy had been marked absent from school at least seven times.
Despite his current charge, everyone present seemed more concerned about his relationship with a gang called the "Folks" in Decatur.
The boy, barraged with both directives and advice about his gang activity when the judge left the courtroom for a short recess, defended the group, saying that they didn't go around hurting people - unless others messed with them first.
"It's just like you're in a big family," argued the boy. "Someone goes and messes with your brother, you're going to go after him."
With a look of exasperation, public defender Bess Walthour pointed to the boy's mother seated nearby.
"That's your family right there," she said. "I think you're confused."
The solicitor, requesting that the boy be placed in the strictest probation program offered, had to settle for a typical probation program because no openings were available in the stricter program. Until one comes open, however, Griffin placed a 5 p.m. curfew on the boy at his probation officer's request.
"This is hard," said the mother when asked if she had anything to say, "because everyone is fighting tooth and nail, and breaking their back for this child, but he isn't doing anything."
Griffin's next case involved the sentencing of a boy who earlier pleaded guilty to a two-month crime spree which included auto theft, theft-by-taking, shoplifting, theft-by-receiving, and giving a false name.
The boy hasn't seen his 15th birthday.
"How did you get the Celebrity?" asked the judge about the stolen car.
"I hot-wired it," the youth responded.
"Why were you stealing razor blades and batteries from a convenience store?" the judge asked.
"To sell," answered the boy, as the solicitor informed the court that he had been saving up for a "Starter" sports jacket.
Griffin ordered the boy committed to the state for two years, which means he'll participate in various rehabilitation programs. The solicitor also suggested that because the boy stole to save money, he should be ordered to get a job. He was also ordered to pay back $80 to each of his three victims as restitution for his crimes against them.
Little more than a smirk shown on the 14-year-old delinquent's face as he left the courtroom.
"In the month I've been here," said court deputy Bowling, "I've only seen one parent say, `Sit-up and pay attention, I didn't teach you that way.' "
It's no secret how these kids get this way, says child advocate attorney Dorothy Murphy.
"More and more of the kids in the foster care system on my caseload are being charged with delinquent offenses - there's no question about it," said child advocate attorney Dorothy Murphy. "And more serious, the magnitude of the offenses has increased."
Griffin sees a correlation, as well. Each week parents are also brought before her court for neglecting and abusing their children.
Her first case the previous day was a hearing to determine whether five children were neglected by their parents. The mother had been caught asleep while the children roamed around their apartment pool. Her apartment was also found to be extremely unsanitary, according to a caseworker.
The parents pleaded guilty and the children were ordered to stay in foster care while the parents cleaned up their act. The only other relative willing or able to take the children would take only the youngest. She was disqualified however, because she lived with a convicted felon. The kids remain in three separate foster homes.
At the close of court, two of the boys earlier found guilty for armed robbery with a toy gun remained in a holding cell. The mother of the 12-and 14-year-old brothers hadn't picked them up after their arrest, nor did she bother to show up for their trial.
This is one of a continuing series of articles on the problem of youth crime in DeKalb County.