April 10, 1996

Juvenile Court Portrait Shows A Failed System

Richard Bernstein New York Times
 

One of the youthful criminals whose story is told in Edward Humes’ “No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court” is one George Trevino, sentenced to 10 years of detention for participating in a bungled armed-robbery attempt when he was 16.

George had been abandoned by almost every adult responsible for his welfare.

He was ditched first by his single mother, when he was 5, and thereafter by overburdened social workers for the state of California who managed his life as though it were a bureaucratic abstraction. They removed him from places where he was doing well, for example, and sent him to live with dysfunctional, crack-smoking relatives.

When George (a pseudonym, like those given to some of the book’s other young offenders) started getting arrested for fights and hanging out with gang members, the probation system ignored him. “The state made George what he is today,” Humes declares.

“No one blamed the nameless bureaucrats who took an A-B student and sent him to a home troubled by drugs,” he writes. “There is no accountability in the system.”

Later, after his sentencing, George tells Humes: “That’s how the system programs you. They let you go and they know that just encourages you, and then they can get you on something worse later on. It’s like they set you up. Of course I’m to blame, too, for going along with it. I didn’t have to do those things, I know that.”

George Trevino’s story is one of the most poignant in a journalistic book of great effectiveness.

Humes, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for specialized reporting on the military establishment in Southern California, spent a year at the derelict, scarred, graffiti-ridden Thurgood Marshall branch of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, a kind of processing center for young offenders.

He follows the cases of a dozen or so, mingling their stories with the experiences of a dedicated prosecutor named Peggy Beckstrand, a contrarian judge named Roosevelt Dorn, a tough-minded probation officer named Sharon Stegall and several others involved in the sad task of administering justice to wayward children.

This book is is a finely etched, powerfully upsetting portrait of a gloomy corner of American life

xxxx “No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year in the Life of Juvenile Court” By Edward Humes (Simon & Schuster, $24,399 pages)

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