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Yet troubling aspects begin to creep in early. First, Humes makes it nearly three-quarters of the way through his account without saying anything decent about a public defender. Second, his language often has a brittle, cliched quality (he favors the term "gangbangers" and the adjective "hardened"). Hume's facts often seem dubiously overfamiliar as well. He writes that we are in "an age of unprecedented violent crime," and that the young are the core of the problem. Yet the murder rate has remained stable for the past 50 years, and only one-half of one percent of all juvenile arrests in 1994 were for violent crimes.
The main point Humes misses throughout this narrative -- he tells the story of seven young offenders' lives -- is the role of racial bias in the courts. Sure, we're offered a throw-away line from a public defender about the hopelessness, in this country, of being young, black and charged with murder. Yet Humes' essential take is that chaos and randomness reign. Chaos? Definitely. Randomness? In the land of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, not very likely. --Salon
Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Humes (Mississippi Mud,1994, etc.) spent a year attending hearings and trials and talking with the most dedicated lawyers, judges, and probation officers in L.A.'s juvenile justice system. He also taught a writing class in a tough wing of Central Juvenile Hall, where kids charged with the gravest offenses await the disposition of their cases. Most of these children come from broken homes, are affiliated with gangs, and have previous records for less severe crimes. Humes asserts that the system has failed them by not stepping in sooner to try to arrest their slide. Minor crimes are punished by probation, which is often administered by overworked officers uninclined to check the most basic information about their charges. In the courtroom, a juvenile is lucky if his swamped public defender has even glanced at his case file before a crucial hearing, much less prepared a defense strategy. Before his sentencing, one of Humes's students assembles testimonials to his rehabilitation in Juvenile Hall but is sentenced harshly anyway because his lawyer hasn't bothered to talk to him. A couple of the cases Humes follows are resolved happily when experimental reform programs straighten out gang members, but elsewhere hard- case felons get off on technicalities, and abused children who still might be reformable receive harsher sentences (in adult prisons) than seems socially useful.
Humes draws an alarming portrait of a judicial system in disarray. Must reading for law-and-order advocates as well as for those bleeding hearts whose worst suspicions will be confirmed here.