By Kitry Krause
Probation officer Bill Stapleton is driving down a north-side street while his partner, Matt Mitchell, phones some of the teenagers on their caseload. “Jamal, what you got goin’ on?…Your mom’s doing your hair?…Oh, braids. Good. I’m not going to be able to check it out tonight. I’ll check it out tomorrow….Don’t forget, your curfew is five o’clock.
“Luke, can you turn that music down?…How was school today?…I’m not coming by tonight. Just checking in.”
Stapleton, Mitchell, and Natalie Reda, the case manager, work as a team for the Cook County Juvenile Court’s Intensive Probation Supervision (IPS), a small, little-known program that serves about 250 juvenile delinquents. The three of them cover the far north side of the county, from Elgin to the lake and south to Lawrence Avenue. They have 30 probationers and try to call or drop in on each of them several times a week.
On this cool spring night Stapleton and Mitchell have already visited five teenagers. The first was a 15-year-old on probation for residential burglary and unlawful use of a weapon; he lives with his grandmother and has been taken in hand by a friend of the family. The friend told the two officers the boy’s doing better in school, though he still clowns around in class and forgets his books. Next was a 16-year-old who was in charge of his gang’s gun and drug money and whose house was shot up after he testified against a rival gang leader. While he stood silent, head down, his parents, both of whom work, worried aloud about what streets he’s safe walking down and whether he’s been placed in the right school. He was followed by a 16-year-old on probation for aggravated battery; her father is in prison, her mother works, and she just got in another fight at school. Then a 16-year-old on probation for drug possession, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes and whose father is in prison, flagged down Stapleton and Mitchell near his house. He politely shook their hands, then proudly told them he’d come in second at his last track meet. Then came a 17-year-old on probation for arson. His parents have had problems with drugs and alcohol, and he spent a year in a residential treatment program. He told Stapleton and Mitchell he’s now getting As and Bs in school instead of Ds and Fs. And he said a man at a fast-food restaurant promised him a job, but when he went back in a coat and tie to fill out an application a woman told him there were no openings.
For the sixth visit Stapleton parks in front of a large courtyard building in Rogers Park. Seventeen-year-old Isaiah, who’s already spent time in a residential drug-treatment program for his crack addiction, has a record of arrests for, among other things, robbery, burglary, assault, trespassing, and disorderly conduct, but he’s on probation for stealing a bike. When he was younger his parents were charged with neglect, and he was taken from them for a short time. His mother now works two jobs and is rarely around to supervise him; his father, an alcoholic and drug user, died two years ago. Last night Isaiah’s mother called Mitchell to tell him her son has been leaving the apartment after curfew.
Isaiah, his eyes slightly bloodshot, opens the apartment door. The living room is hazy with cigarette smoke, and newspapers are strewn across the couch and floor. Frowning, he drops into a chair and says, “It’s a mess in here.”
Stapleton asks to be introduced to the teenager sitting in a corner, and Isaiah says it’s his cousin. Mitchell disappears around the corner into the kitchen, where he finds an older guy and Isaiah’s girlfriend, who saunters into the living room wearing tight jeans and a black exercise top.
Isaiah, who looks 13, scowls at her. “I don’t like her wearing that shit.”
“I’ve got another one,” she says.
“Put it on.”
She smiles and strolls toward the bathroom.
“She’s been aggravating me all night.”
Mitchell sternly tells Isaiah that he’s been seen on the street past curfew and that he hasn’t been calling in to let any of his probation officers know where he is, then warns him that he’s getting very close to going to jail. Isaiah glowers.
Walking back to the car, Mitchell wonders if he was high.
To protect the identity of juvenile offenders, their names and some details have been changed.
Stapleton laughs. “They’re probably doggin’ us now. ‘Oh man, we coulda been busted. They’re so stupid.'”
“That kid’s going to jail,” says Mitchell. “He’s just too caught up in his world of gangs, drugs, partying.” He pauses. “Well, I don’t know. He has potential. He’s smart, really athletic. He’s already got his GED. He’s just addicted to drugs.”
Stapleton parks at the end of a dark alley. “We’ll call this one in for sure.” IPS officers, who aren’t allowed to carry guns, radio the county dispatchers to let them know when they’re out of the car in a dangerous neighborhood. A few weeks ago the officers finally got bulletproof vests, though Stapleton’s and Mitchell’s haven’t come in yet. They also got county cars; before, they’d driven their own cars and been reimbursed for mileage.
The two walk through a six-foot plank gate, then pound on the back door of a brick two-flat. For a long time the building is silent. Then the corner of a blind lifts and the door opens.
“She’s not home,” says Sherry’s grandmother. She says she thinks Sherry, who’s 17 and on probation for drug possession, may have taken her baby to her cousin’s.
Mitchell replies that Sherry is supposed to be here or is supposed to have called and asked permission to leave. “She’s treading on some pretty thin ice, so she’d better get with the program.”
Back in the car Mitchell says Sherry was a big gangbanger. “She’s out of that whole world–or so she says. They’re all ex-gang members. I’d say 99 percent of our kids are gang-involved.” Every juvenile who’s accepted into the IPS program must sign an agreement whose 16th item states, “You may not associate with any gangs or gang members.” Mitchell says, “That’s a little like telling the guy who works in the candy factory to stop eating the candy.”
By the time they head back to the office it’s 10 PM. Mitchell calls a 16-year-old who hasn’t been home all evening. “He’s not back yet?…He went with your dad?…Tell him we’re still looking for him, OK?”
He hangs up, then laughs and starts dialing again. “It’ll be safe to call Rafael now–his mother will be asleep.”
The juveniles in the Intensive Probation Supervision program are neither the best kids in the juvenile court system nor the worst; the best are on regular probation, the worst are already in prison, in the Department of Corrections. The kids on IPS have usually been found delinquent more than once and, were it not for the program, would have been sent to DOC. “If you look at their past offenses it’s like, how could this kid not be locked up?” says Stapleton. “Yet there’s something going on–either they show some initiative or some spark, or you can look at their family situation, their background, and say, you’ve done a lot of things wrong, but you could have done a whole lot worse. There’s still some potential there, and we try to give them an opportunity to work with it.”
The Cook County IPS program was set up 13 years ago by the Illinois Supreme Court, which still funds IPS programs around the state as a way to decrease prison overcrowding and save the taxpayers money. It costs about $35,000 to keep a juvenile in prison for a year–$13,000 more than the average adult because of extra services such as schooling and counseling. A juvenile who makes it through the yearlong IPS program costs the state only $3,000.
For each of the past few years more than 15,000 children under the age of 17 have passed through Cook County Juvenile Court; 400 of them have ended up in residential treatment programs, 8,000 on regular probation, and about 250 on IPS. For a long time only probationers who’d committed nonviolent crimes were accepted into IPS. But as the number of juveniles going through the courts has grown, and with few alternatives to detention, judges have pushed kids who’ve committed violent crimes into the program.
Of the juveniles on IPS–almost all of whom are male–more than half make it through their year. Any juvenile who’s found delinquent in another case while on IPS will almost certainly be sent to DOC, and repeated violations of IPS rules–not being home by curfew, not going to school–can also land him in DOC. On top of a file cabinet in the office that Reda, Mitchell, and Stapleton share is a collage of snapshots of IPS kids at a day camp two summers ago–boys laughing as they sit astride horses, dive into a pool, play volleyball. Someone has since written DOC over the heads of most of them.
The county has 300 regular probation officers working with juveniles; IPS has 18. Regular probation field officers have an average caseload of 42; each team of three IPS officers has a maximum of 45. Regular probation officers are required to see their kids once a month; IPS officers are supposed to see theirs four times a week–at home, at school, at counseling–for at least the first three months of the program.
IPS officers can drop in on their kids whenever they want, and they shift their schedules from days to nights to weekends to make it harder to predict when they’ll come. They also occasionally do “double backs,” dropping by and then returning later to see if the kids have taken off.
IPS kids–most of whom are 13 to 17, though a few are as young as 10–are on home confinement for the first 30 days, allowed out only to go to school, work, counseling, or something else their probation officers have approved ahead of time. They’re supposed to call the officers when they leave the house and when they come back. They’re supposed to go to school each day, be home by curfew–five o’clock to start, later if they’re good–do a minimum of 60 hours of community service, and see a family or individual counselor at least once a week. They’re not supposed to carry a weapon or beeper, wear gang colors, or use or sell drugs. And they can be tested for drug use at any time. All the rules are on the application form each juvenile fills out, which states at the top, “IPS is your final chance to prove to the Court that you can change your behavior without being sent to a correctional facility.” Plenty of kids opt to do their time in DOC instead.
Early the following Saturday about 60 teenagers and 40 parents, only five of them fathers, are escorted by probation officers into an auditorium in the juvenile court building at 1100 S. Hamilton for one of the periodic IPS “roundups,” which all probationers are supposed to attend. Stapleton and Mitchell have been handing out fliers about it for the past couple of days; they’re always handing out fliers–about meetings, training programs, basketball camp.
After everyone’s seated, one of the supervisors explains the goals of IPS, and a former probationer is brought up to thank the staff for giving him another chance. Then the teenagers go to another room to talk with some of the officers about what they plan to do over the summer, while the parents stay behind to ask questions.
One woman asks why the probation officers won’t force her son to get a job. Natalie Reda says they tell the probationers over and over to look for work, but the kids have to get the jobs themselves. Another woman says she wants the rules changed to say that probationers have to do housework instead of just sitting around watching TV.
“Do you know how to unplug the TV?” says Ruth O’Leary, one of the supervisors. There’s scattered applause from the parents.
“But he don’t know how to wash dishes,” says the woman.
“Then teach him,” snaps O’Leary. She gets more applause this time.
A probation officer asks how many parents believe their son or daughter is in a gang, and about half raise their hands. He asks how many believe their kid isn’t involved, and about a third raise their hands. He tells them he knows for certain that some of their kids are in gangs. The parents look surprised.
When the teenagers come back into the room they meet–one by one, in the order they arrived that morning–with their team of probation officers. The kid whose house was shot up by rival gang members sits down with his mother across the table from Reda, Mitchell, and Stapleton. His mother says that he’s transferred to a new GED program and is doing better there. He asks what happens if he’s picked up by the police.
“Are you trying to tell us something, or are you predicting the future?” says Stapleton.
The kid explains that he was arrested once before for loitering when he was just waiting for a train. Stapleton sees the mother’s eyes widen and asks if she’d known he was arrested. She says she hadn’t.
After they leave, Mitchell goes with another juvenile on an errand, and 15-year-old Rafael, who’s on probation for drug possession, slides into the chair. He lives with his brother and mother, who’s on public aid and rarely goes out, in a small one-bedroom apartment in Evanston; he and his mother argue constantly. Rafael tells Reda and Stapleton that Mitchell said he could have a later curfew, of 5:30 or 6. When Mitchell comes back, Reda asks him if he agreed to a change. He looks puzzled and says he doesn’t remember.
Rafael, half smiling, says they talked about it just a little while ago. Mitchell looks hard at him. “I’m just trying to refresh your memory,” says Rafael.
“Well, it’s not working,” says Mitchell.
“You’re making me look like a liar,” says Rafael.
“And you’re making Mr. Mitchell look like a liar,” says Reda.
For a long moment all three probation officers stare at him. Finally Reda says, “I’m writing you down for five o’clock.”
Later Mitchell says he isn’t sure why they didn’t punish Rafael for lying. It may have been that their ability to punish is limited; they have a system of progressive discipline beginning with verbal and written reprimands, then time at the IPS office, then detention, which they can use only rarely because the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, or Audy Home, is overcrowded–600 to 800 kids when the capacity is 498. Or it may have been because they know how wearying his mother can be, since she calls them almost every day with a stream of complaints about her son. “What she’s saying sounds plausible if you hear her alone,” says Stapleton. “But when you talk to Rafael it’s a different story. Of course he’s no angel.”
Next is 16-year-old Robert, who’s on probation for armed robbery and gun possession. He lives with his mother, who’s unemployed, and has only rarely seen his father. He hasn’t finished school, but he has a girlfriend, a baby, and another baby on the way. This week he was arrested for allegedly following a man to a cash station, beating him up, stealing his money, then later calling the man and trying to scare him into giving him his PIN number. The police traced the call to Robert’s house, but he said that some friends of his beat the man up and that he didn’t know they called the man from his house. Mitchell says he doesn’t believe him, then says he’s not sure.
Robert, who was released on home confinement until his court date, has other concerns this morning. He’s supposed to spend time in detention for the case that got him on probation, but instead he’s working off the hours on the weekend in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program, under which juvenile offenders go out in supervised groups to clean up city and county property. “I can’t do it all weekend,” he says sullenly. “I need a day off.” He pauses, then adds, “And I have to go to church.”
“You’re doing SWAP instead of detention,” Reda says. She reminds him that because he’s not in school, he can get it over with quickly if he does it every day for a couple of weeks.
“I can’t get up so early so many days in a row,” he says.
“I do,” says Reda, smiling brightly.
He looks annoyed but says nothing, and Reda asks his mother, who’s seemed irritated all morning, what she thinks. She looks at her son for a long time and finally says, “He should stick to weekends.”
Next is a 16-year-old who’s on probation for drug possession with intent to deliver. He was supposed to get off home confinement today, but he was arrested this week for being part of a big fight at school. Reda tells him he has to stay on home confinement, and his face falls, because he’d planned to go to Great America this afternoon with his family. He insists he wasn’t in the fight. Reda’s inclined to believe him, but she says he’s been told plenty of times that he’s a target for the police because of his record and that he has to stay away from trouble. “If you see a fight,” she says, “go back into the school and sit there until it’s over.”
His mother and grandmother nod. He hangs his head, looking close to tears.
Reda watches him for a minute, then says, “OK. I’ll negotiate.” She tells him he can go to Great America, but he has to be home by midnight. “And you’re on home confinement for the rest of the week, OK?”
He smiles. “Yeah, I’m OK with that.”
A few more kids file up. Luke is leaning on a cane and limping; he was beaten up in school last week. William is scolded for rarely calling in. Patrick is praised for staying out of trouble and for having signed up early to do his community service.
Only about half the kids on the officers’ caseload have come. Jamal, who’s 15 and on probation for selling drugs and driving a stolen car, hasn’t shown up because he was arrested last night for allegedly stealing a bike. He insisted the friend who owned it gave him permission to take it, and his mother backed his story. Mitchell and Stapleton went to the police station and tried to get a station adjustment, which would have allowed Jamal to go home with his mother after a report was written. But because he’d been to court on nine cases and found delinquent in five, had court cases still pending, and had been on IPS only two weeks, he was sent to Audy until he’s given a court date on this charge.
Sherry has come alone. Without any prompting, she says angrily that she thinks her mother, who lives in the basement of the house where Sherry and her grandmother live, is doing cocaine again. She says the last time her mother was on drugs she sold Sherry’s TV and VCR, then said someone had broken in and stolen them. “What does she think? I’m not stupid!” This week they got in another argument, and Sherry’s grandmother told her daughter not to come upstairs. Sherry says her mother probably won’t because she’s afraid of the grandmother.
Mitchell tells her she can’t fight her mother’s addiction and she should leave rather than get in fights. Sherry says she can go to her cousin’s sometimes, but she needs to have her grandmother take care of her baby while she’s finishing her GED and looking for a job.
As the three probation officers walk back to their office, Stapleton, who started working with the north-side team only a couple of weeks ago, says he’s surprised that Sherry was so open about what was going on in her family. “Yeah,” says Reda, “but you have to remember that she lies a lot. And she’s very, very good at it.”
“Being a probation officer, your job is so multifaceted,” says Mitchell. “You’re a role model, a police officer, a counselor, a referee, an interpreter, a lawyer, a good guy, a bad guy. Someone who can clear the red tape of the bureaucracies around here, somebody who can ‘get me a job.’ You’re an activity planner–you name it. A lot of it is just being able to juggle different things at the same time.”
He says some IPS officers see themselves mostly as enforcers of the law. “They dress the role, they wear their badges outside. And they deal with the kids in more of an aggressive, disciplinarian style–being very strict, holding them extremely accountable.” Some see themselves mostly as social workers. “They’re not going to really hold the kid too accountable but just try and provide him with different services. They’re more concerned about the family. Every probation officer has a different kind of style. Some of them scream at kids until they’re blue in the face. Others, it’s just not their style to yell at kids.”
Mitchell sees himself and his partners–all of whom have worked in the program for almost three years–as somewhere in between. “I’m a pretty laid-back probation officer. I will cut the kids some slack–it depends on how much I like the kid and how much he’s got going on. But I also feel very strongly about holding them accountable. They need some direction and they need help. So we deliver that help through the agencies that we use–the counseling, the family therapy. But we’re also out there to make sure that these kids are not re-offending.”
Stapleton says that some probation officers expect too much too soon, writing up a violation of probation, for instance, the minute a kid starts missing school. “My feeling is, this kid hasn’t gone to school every day for the last two years. We’ve got him going three times a week. That’s a whole bunch better. Give him the opportunity to pull it together. Even if he only gets to school three out of five days, maybe next week he’ll get there four. Before you know it, by God–by accident–he’s getting there five days a week. And maybe, just by accident, he’s learning something.”
In the next week none of the probation officers manages to contact Isaiah, the crack addict who scowled at his girlfriend. They’ve written up a violation of probation, and he’ll get a summons telling him to appear in court.
Reda usually accompanies the probationers to court, where she often has to work against conflicting perceptions of IPS. Some judges don’t think the probation officers try hard enough to help the kids. “This one judge does not like IPS because she thinks we send everybody to DOC. Well, they should have been there already. We’re trying to work with them, but sometimes it’s like, ‘OK, I’m frustrated. I tried everything with this kid.’ Of course the state’s attorneys love us because we’re always asking for jail. The public defenders do not–but they don’t look at the big picture of what we’re trying to do. Some of the public defenders are like, ‘Let’s get this kid off–I don’t care what he did.’ Because they don’t want to see anybody get slapped too hard. The state’s attorneys, on the other hand, say, ‘Throw the book at him. Send him to DOC.’ And I’m in the middle going, ‘Well, you know…'” She says that police officers often don’t like the program either, but it’s because they think probation officers coddle criminals. “We’re always pleading for them–that’s what they say.”
Mitchell guesses that the general public would also have a harsh opinion. “People don’t have the perception that these are kids. They want to treat them as adults, as regular offenders. ‘Three strikes, you’re out. Lock ’em up till they’re 21.’ Some kids, yeah. There are kids out there who need that, who are dangerous. But there’re a lot of kids who aren’t–more of them, in my opinion. The bottom line is, these kids will be back out on the street, and if we’ve done nothing to help them they’re not going to change.”
That same week, on Thursday afternoon, Mitchell is out checking on the probationers by himself. Halfway down one block he spots 17-year-old Andrew standing on the sidewalk with a group of boys. Andrew, who lives with his aunt because his mother is an addict and his father long ago disappeared, is on probation for selling a large amount of cocaine, though he insists he was set up by someone who used his name. None of his probation officers thought he’d make it very long in the program when he started, but he’s almost through. “He’s always been great with us,” Reda says. “I think he just needed attention. I’d do anything for that kid. He’s going to have a hard time getting a job because he talks so slow. He’s not stupid. His aunt says he smoked so much pot growing up that he was just stoned for years. If you could turn the clock back he’d probably be a really good kid.”
Mitchell pulls up next to the group of teenagers. “Not sellin’ drugs, are you?” he says, smiling as Andrew ambles over.
“Nah,” says Andrew, smiling back.
“If the police see you standing on the street with a bunch of guys, you’re putting yourself in a position for something to happen.”
Andrew nods. “That’s why my aunty, she tells me, don’t be with a crowd, don’t be out.”
“She’s right. I’m not trying to be hard on you, because I know you’re doing well. Just keep it in mind. And you’ve got too much black and blue on.”
Andrew is late for school, and Mitchell offers him a ride. At the school a teacher tells Mitchell that Andrew rarely misses class and that he’s been doing well on practice tests for his GED.
Early that evening Mitchell stops at the house of a new probationer, Curtis, a ninth-grader who’s been to court on seven different cases and is on probation for robbery. His mother works, his father is in jail.
Mitchell asks Curtis what he knows about IPS. Curtis looks puzzled, then says slowly that he’s on home confinement for 30 days. He pauses and says he has to go to school. When he pauses again, Mitchell says he ought to know the rules by heart now, then makes him find the IPS forms he signed and reads him the list. (Later Mitchell says that most of the kids who mess up do so in the first couple of months, and the harder the probation officers ride them at the beginning, the more likely they are to make it.)
He asks Curtis how he feels about being on IPS.
Curtis shrugs. “It’s better than DOC.”
Mitchell says it’s odd that he’s a Gangster Disciple in a neighborhood full of Latin Kings and Vice Lords, but Curtis immediately corrects him, insisting that there are lots of Gangster Disciples around.
“Is that going to be a problem?”
Curtis looks at the floor and shakes his head.
Mitchell tells him IPS isn’t easy, isn’t what other kids at Audy told him. “But I want to help you make it. We’re going to focus first on getting into a routine. Get up early. Take a shower. Call me.” He says he wants Curtis to work hard in school and warns that he’ll be coming by a lot.
Back in the car Mitchell says, “He doesn’t see how much of a break he’s been given. I don’t think he’ll do well.” He says he always has a gut feeling about whether a kid will make it through IPS, and it’s usually right.
On the north side nearly 60 percent of the IPS kids make it through the program. On the south side it’s 50 percent, and on the west side 20 percent. Stapleton, who spent two of his three years at IPS on the west side, says that the kids who tend to make it are the ones you’d expect to, those with a strong role model–a parent, grandparent, teacher, counselor–who cares about them. “Another type of kid that makes it did what he did more or less just for the spirit of doing it–just goofing around, getting hung up with the wrong crowd. ‘Let’s see if we can steal this car and get away with it.'”
Mitchell says that the kids who don’t make it are also usually the ones you’d expect. “The family isn’t there, they just were never loved. The gang thing–they’re too caught up in the power, the prestige. Lack of motivation. Their parents are on public aid. Their neighborhood’s shitty–people selling crack. They get high, smoke pot. Always looking to do things the easy way. Their schools suck. Kids get passed on even if they can’t read or write. No mystery.”
Stapleton adds, “There are also kids selling drugs on the west side because that’s the only way they can survive. If they want to eat or if they need some shoes, a new jacket, they have to get their own money. They’ll get on IPS and stay away from selling, but eventually it comes back to ‘I have to do something to earn money again.’ There’s nothing else out there for them, and it’s real easy to get sucked back in. They may go, ‘Well, I’m just going to try to do it a little bit, just so I can get a couple bucks in my pocket.’ But now they owe somebody something. We’ve had kids that have been trying to stay on IPS, and these older guys that they used to sell drugs for force them to start selling again. One kid we had was even shot at by his old ‘mentor’ because he wouldn’t come work for him.”
Stapleton, Mitchell, and Reda know that many of the kids who manage to stay out of trouble the whole year they’re on IPS simply slide through without changing much–and probably do things they’re not supposed to but just don’t get caught. And they know that some of those kids will probably come through the court system again. But they’ve also seen a few make a true turnaround. “I think there’s been maybe four or five kids of the couple hundred that we’ve worked with that have made significant changes in their lives,” says Mitchell. “These kids tend to be older. They’ve gotten over that puberty period. They’re going to school and are committed to getting their education. They’ve dropped their gang affiliation. And I think there’s a strong parental or outside role model who gives them extra direction.
“Another reason is they’re sick of being involved in the system. A lot of these kids have been in the system since they were 14, 15, and they’re just sick of being locked up, sick of being arrested, hassled by police officers. Also their charges tend to be more serious. We have a lot of kids who are in for stupid little things, misdemeanor cases–criminal trespass to vehicle, criminal trespass to land. As opposed to residential burglary, as opposed to kids who are out there with guns, beating the snot out of people, breaking into people’s homes–for them, what they did is a kind of reality check. They say, ‘Yeah, that was very wrong.’ Whereas the kids with the smaller charges say, ‘We were just hanging out and the cops came by.’ They kind of dismiss it. In their mind they weren’t doing anything wrong.”
No one officially tracks the kids after they leave IPS. “When we’re no longer in the picture, who knows what goes on?” says Mitchell. “I think every probation officer with every success story wants to truly believe that what they did made a difference in the kid’s life and that the changes will carry on. I think we make a difference, but we have no way to know.”
Mitchell says he likes working with the younger kids best. “Like Jamal–the kid just cracks me up. He’s hilarious, he’s kind of goofy, just kind of young. I like the goofy ones, as well as the ones who’ve got their shit together. Sometimes just driving around, I’m like, I have got the best job in the city–these kids are entertaining.”
But he’s been disappointed plenty of times by kids he likes. “The first couple times I got burned, I just couldn’t believe it. I had this one suburban kid who was like my little project–because he was the biggest jag and no one else wanted to work with him. So I was really gung ho. This boy had just gotten out of drug treatment, so I was working with the outpatient counseling, at school spending time with him and his teachers. And things seemed to be going well. ‘No, I’m not doing drugs anymore.’ I was at the house, things were fine. Get a page from the mom like two hours later, had to go back. The kid’s just fucked-up beyond belief. I’d placed a lot of trust in him, and I’d hoped he was making the right decisions. I don’t know how he got that drunk and stoned in two hours, but I was pissed. You get burned a couple of times, and you don’t open yourself up as much.”
He finds the girls harder to work with than the boys. “The girls make you do a lot more work. You almost feel like, all right, they don’t have a father. I’ve got to be a role model. I don’t know. They just require more attention. They’re more sensitive. They have a lot more issues, I think, than some of the guys do.” He remembers a girl whose teachers overheard her say she was pregnant, but she denied she’d said it. “What’s up with that?” He pauses. “And you hear things in the news. They say you’ve got to cover your ass–don’t go anywhere alone with them. Is she going to call the news and say my probation officer did something? In some ways I try and deal with them just bottom line–get the job done, don’t become as involved as with some of the other kids.”
He finds it discouraging to work with the kids who don’t seem to care about anything anymore, a category he guesses one out of ten of the north-side kids falls into and eight or nine out of ten of the west-side kids. “These kids, it’s like they’ve been to Vietnam and back–that whole post-traumatic stress syndrome. I think a lot of the kids have that, just from the way they were brought up. From being yelled at or physically abused. The TV’s always as loud as it can go when you go in there. You’ve got to scream at each other to communicate. A lot of hostility. A small area to live in. A lot of pressures, tensions. They’ve been exposed to so many things you and I would not be exposed to, whether it be violence, just the harsh reality of being inner-city poor, the cops, the system.
“These are kids who almost don’t have a will. They don’t make eye contact with you when they speak, they mumble, they’re not able to articulate anything. It’s not hostile. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about themselves. They care about their immediate needs and wants–immediate gratification, whether it be food, gangbanging, drugs, whatever.”
Stapleton says two years on the west side were enough for him. “When we were working there, you could almost walk from house to house faster than trying to drive on the one-way streets, because you had six, seven kids within a two-block area. Then these kids would go away for whatever reason–and the kid next door would be on. You get tired of the same situations, the same stories, the same eyes.”
He was also frustrated that the problems of the west side made it harder to help the kids. “The gangs on the west side are a lot stronger, the ties are a lot tighter, so you’ve got to be careful where you send the kids. They can’t go in every neighborhood. Some places they can’t even go across the street.” It was also harder to find service agencies to send the kids to, and the ones he could find were always underfunded and overwhelmed. “It’s just a drastic difference between some of the west-side areas and the north-side areas just as far as the availability of stuff. And when you get out to some of the suburbs, they’ve just got so many better programs.”
The next week, even though it won’t count toward his community-service hours, Robert volunteers to help the IPS staff with a fund-raiser. A day later he’s supposed to be in court for the cash-station robbery but doesn’t show up. Mitchell drives to his house and brings him in. He’s held for a couple of hours until a new court date is set and his mother comes to pick him up.
That same day is Isaiah’s court date. For three weeks now he hasn’t been home when the probation officers called, and Reda says that if he shows up today she’ll put him in Audy. But she’s sure he won’t come. “I think he’s a loss to us,” she says. “And he got everything–drug treatment, you name it.” If he doesn’t show up she’ll get a juvenile arrest warrant for him, and if he’s caught by the police–probation officers have no authority to arrest the kids–he’ll go straight to DOC.
“I believe that some kids need to go to the Department of Corrections just for what they could gain from being there,” says Stapleton. “Because there’s a potential that they could change their life or that they could see that what they’re doing is wrong. They need counseling, they need drug treatment, they need to be educated, and they’re going to be force-fed it at the Department of Corrections. They’re just uneducated enough, unmotivated enough, to not go and get the help on their own–or even when they’re forced to do it by IPS. ‘Forced’ meaning, ‘You made the appointment, you’re supposed to be there. Damn it, be there.’
“I remember writing my first recommendation for putting someone in the Department of Corrections. I really struggled with it because I liked the kid. I thought he needed some kind of an opportunity or break–even though he’d already had six or seven or eight breaks. But then as time has gone along, I guess I’ve just realized it’s not us that’s putting them there. All we’re trying to do is direct them. It’s their call. I realize that they’re young and kids, and I try not to give them a call they can’t make. We lay it out in a step-by-step procedure that is doable, if you want to do it. I go out of my way to reexplain to them what they’re doing wrong and how important it is–but how trivial it is–just to do what any normal kid is supposed to do. ‘It’s going to be so stupid for you to go to the Department of Corrections because you won’t go to school or you won’t follow one or two simple rules.'”
This week one of the north-side team’s kids went to DOC, but another completed the program. They now have 31 cases, but other teams have more–and for the next six months all the teams will be getting a lot more, most of them from residential programs. These “after care” kids started off on regular probation, then were placed in residential programs because they were using drugs or had a chaotic family life or some other major problem. Now the county is taking them back out of the programs because it doesn’t have the money to pay for them; the programs can cost more than $400 a day. (Money is so tight that the IPS staff hold fund-raisers; in May they had a hot dog sale and raised $800, which paid for CTA tokens for the kids.)
IPS is seen as the best alternative for kids coming from a residential program because it provides more structure than regular probation. “Rather than taking a kid from a very tight, locked-down placement facility and saying, ‘OK, you’re done–you go home to parents who aren’t even in the house, where there’s no food on the table,'” says Stapleton, “they put them on our program for a while to kind of ease them back. Start them off on home confinement, start them off on a five o’clock curfew, make sure that they get enrolled in school.” He says the IPS staff are also supposed to get the kids into counseling, but while the agencies that provide such services might have a sliding scale for the poor, the families of these kids usually can’t afford anything.
Taking on the after-care cases is leaving the IPS staff with less time for their regular cases, and Mitchell says the word is already out. “The intake workers are saying every kid in the Audy Home wants IPS now, because they know we’d only see them once or twice a week instead of three or four times. A lot of kids didn’t want IPS before because they knew they couldn’t stay inside that much. They’d just go to DOC and do their time.”
A week later Mitchell and Stapleton stopped by to see Robert. He had a black eye and a broad scrape on one side of his face, as if he’d been dragged along the ground. He said he was “violated” out of his gang. A week after that he missed the second court date for the cash-station robbery, even though he knew a warrant would be out for his arrest. Mitchell told him he wouldn’t ask that Robert be held in Audy until his trial if he turned himself in. “But the judge is kind of a hard-ass,” Mitchell says, “so he may hold him anyway.”
It’s been five weeks since Mitchell and Stapleton last saw Isaiah, and he still hasn’t shown up for court. Jamal spent two weeks in Audy waiting for his court date on the bike-theft case, which was then thrown out. Curtis, the kid who couldn’t remember the IPS rules, was suspended from school for mouthing off to a security guard and had to spend the afternoon at the IPS office stapling papers and doing his homework. Rafael was suspended for three days for missing class; he called IPS and threatened to leave home, saying he couldn’t take his mother anymore. Then his mother called Mitchell and complained for half an hour. Sherry called and told Mitchell excitedly that she’d found a waitressing job; juvenile records are confidential, so she didn’t have to reveal that she’s on probation.
Mitchell and Stapleton leave the office late that Wednesday afternoon, stopping first at the apartment of two brothers, 13 and 15, who are on probation for selling drugs. They’re on home confinement, but their grandmother says they went out to eat. The next stop is the courtyard building where a kid who always chews his fingernails lives with his mother. He disappeared a month ago and has had an arrest warrant out on him ever since. He isn’t home today. And slow-talking Andrew isn’t in school. “O for three,” says Stapleton.
Mitchell parks outside William’s building in Albany Park. The 17-year-old, who is on probation for being a passenger in a stolen car and has a record going back to when he was 8, has been suspended from school, though he insisted he only pushed a guy who was trying to punch him in the face. Stapleton believes him. “This is a kid who’s trying and succeeding marginally, but he’s got such a bad reputation from before that he constantly gets challenged. He was a wannabe maybe two years ago. Now he doesn’t wanna be anymore, but everybody doesn’t know that.” Including his teachers, who seem quick to assume he’s at fault in any confrontation. Mitchell, who’s pretty sure William is still in his gang, adds that rival gang members hound him because they know that if he screws up on IPS he’ll go to DOC.
William’s mother tells them he isn’t home. Stapleton says this is the second day in a row that they haven’t seen him and asks where he was last night. His mother says she can’t remember. She squints and says slowly, “I’m trying to remember. You know how you get when you’re getting old–I can remember what happened 20 years ago but not yesterday.” She pauses, then says she does remember. She sent him out at 5 PM to get a gallon of milk and didn’t see him again until 6 AM. “He got caught in a police sweep as soon as he left.”
“As soon as she said that, I knew she was lying,” says Stapleton as he walks back to the car. “I’m sure the police just scooped up everyone walking down the street at five o’clock.”
Mitchell wonders sarcastically how she could forget that her own son had been arrested and spent the night in jail, but he isn’t sure that William wasn’t arrested. And neither he nor Stapleton has any idea why she’d say he was arrested if he wasn’t.
They find William at his after-school program and ask him questions about it and about his suspension. He tells them his teachers are going to have a meeting about allowing him back into school, and Mitchell volunteers to come to it. Finally Stapleton asks, “Anything you want to tell us? Been in any trouble lately?”
William looks puzzled. He shakes his head and says no.
“We heard that you were arrested.”
William looks surprised and indignant. “Who told you that?”
Stapleton ignores the question. “What were you doing last night?”
“I did a lot. At seven I went out for milk, and at ten my mom said she wanted some movies.”
“What time did you get back?”
“Ten-thirty. And then I sat on the back porch till six. I didn’t get any sleep till this morning.”
“Your mom said she didn’t know where you were all night.”
William’s head jerks back. “She told you that?”
Back in the car Mitchell says he thinks William, who’s always been pretty open about the trouble he gets into, is telling the truth. But he’ll check the computer records on arrests anyway.
Mitchell, Stapleton, and Reda spend a lot of time trying to leverage small pieces of information into bigger ones. “Some kids, you can go up and just phrase a question to them, and if they did something wrong that day they think you already know what it was, even though you don’t,” says Stapleton. “‘So what’s the deal? What happened today at school?’ ‘Oh, man, how does he know that I did that? It just happened two hours ago.’ So he starts giving you this excuse for why it happened. I’ve even had kids say, ‘No, nothing happened today. It was yesterday.’ ‘Oh, all right. So what happened yesterday?'”
Stapleton guesses that a lot of the kids think the probation officers are naive about life in their neighborhoods. “Especially when they start getting in trouble, they’ll always say, well, you don’t know what it’s like out here. Granted, we don’t know because we haven’t lived that, yet we’ve experienced it through other people. I’m aware of how bad the gangs are out there.”
He isn’t sure what the kids, many of whom are black, make of the fact that he’s white. “I’ve always wondered about that, in part because I’m a little older than other officers. I don’t know if because I’m older they would have more respect for me, less respect for me? I’ve made the comment to some of the other guys after we have a little argument with some kid or we lay down the law–we walk away, and the kids have got to be thinking, who’s that old white asshole telling me what to do?” He laughs. “You just wonder what’s running through their heads, but it’s got to be a lot of that same way they treat their parents too–any authority figure.”
Plenty of times kids have been angry with him for laying down the law, but he says he’s never felt truly threatened. “They’re mad at you, but it’s always in lockup or a group or in the Audy Home or down in court. I feel more threatened being out on the streets and out at night–not by the families or the kids that we’re dealing with, but just the other people on the street, because they don’t always know who we are and why we’re there.” Still, one of the reasons he left the west side was that he wasn’t sure how much probationers and their families resented him and his badge. “I started to think about the fact that a lot of those kids that we put in the Department of Corrections now are out. I don’t know how they feel about me. Maybe some kid’s going to have too much to drink someday or be too high and not like the fact that I put him in the Department of Corrections.”
Reda says, “I’ve never been afraid of going somewhere, but I can think of two times I’ve driven up when I’ve been by myself and said, I don’t like this place, and driven away. A mom threatened that I would have to scrape my ass off the cement if I came near her or talked to her again. I don’t know if I considered it a real threat to me.”
“When I first started I was afraid a couple of times,” says Mitchell. “First time out visiting this kid in Evanston, I’m by myself. Pull up, four guys come and surround the car. I’m thinking, what are you going to do? I get out of the car, and they start lippin’ off to me. I was scared as hell, hands were shaking. I’ve just got to walk through them, get to this house, visit this kid. They were waiting outside when I came back, and I went, great, am I going to have four nails pounded into my tires?” But they let him pass, and he drove off.
“We’re very fortunate that a probation officer has never been hurt. They’ve been shot at or caught in the middle of cross fire. There’s a lot of male and female officers in the projects. They go in there in the daytime, when it’s safer. Some of them go in at night. There’s always an element of danger. It’s part of the job. We’re told 14 probation officers or parole officers are killed each year in the United States.”
Two weeks later Mitchell and Stapleton stop by to see the kid who was arrested for arson, who tells them he’s found a job as a stock boy at a grocery. “I’ve got my summer plan,” he says earnestly, head down, repeatedly sweeping his hair out of his eyes. “Got a job. Money in my pocket. Do things that keep me out of trouble. Go bowling. Bowling’s cool.”
Later they find a 16-year-old, on probation for drug possession, out playing basketball a half hour before curfew. The kid, who’s in a residential program, strides up to the car smiling and tells them excitedly that he’s going to see his father in prison tomorrow. He knows his father will get out in six weeks, and he’s sure he’ll be going to live with him.
The two probation officers are worried about what that would mean for the kid, whom they’ve watched change from a gangbanger who was always in fights to a hardworking student and athlete. They know that his father was heavily involved with gangs and that all his children were taken from him–their mother is dead–by the Department of Children and Family Services. The kid is already a junior, Mitchell says, so maybe he can finish school and be living on his own before his father can prove he deserves custody–if he wants it.
Mitchell knows he worries about the kids more than he should. “If you let your job consume you, probation will eat you up and spit you out. I don’t try to take it home, but where else can you take it?” He sometimes dreams about work. “About kids out on the street, kids running around, going crazy. Sometimes you have bad dreams about them–a kid got shot or something.”
Some of his kids have been shot. “I had one boy from the projects who had moved up north, definitely a big gangbanger. Got shot four times–three times in the stomach, once in the leg. Got a call from his mom. ‘He’s in critical condition, don’t know if he’s going to make it.’ I went over to visit him. It was weird. ‘Wow–I told you not to go outside. You’re on home confinement.’ Then to see him a couple months later–luckiest kid alive. Nothing’s wrong with him. Huge staple marks all the way around his chest, all the way up and down. Leg, same thing. But he made it off probation.”
A year ago a 16-year-old probationer living with his mother on the west side was shot in the back of the head. “The judge ordered him to live with his uncle out in the suburbs, so he moved out there–away from the city, the gang problems, the shitty education. The kid just couldn’t handle it in the suburbs. It was too boring, school was too hard, he had a job. Eventually he just said screw it. Ran away, moved back to the west side. We violated his probation, he went out on a warrant. We get a call from the mom. ‘He’s sleeping at the house. Comes in at four in the morning. He’s threatening people.’ He finally got picked up and went to DOC.
“You’d think there’d be a wake-up call. ‘Hello, you got shot in the back of the head. You could have died.’ When I first met that kid he had that hollow look to him–been through hell and back, just doesn’t care. In some ways I don’t have any sympathy for him, yet I feel bad for him.”
Two weeks later William–whose mother said he’d been arrested when he hadn’t been–has got a job working in a warehouse. Sherry quit hers because her boss kept making passes at her; she’s looking for another one. She also broke up with her boyfriend, the father of her baby. The kid whose father is getting out of prison received an award for being the most improved athlete on one of his school’s sports teams, and Patrick, who’s on probation for drug possession, got all As on his report card.
Robert, who’s accused of the cash-station robbery, is still out on a warrant, but he took his GED test today and has promised to turn himself in tomorrow. “Now the judge is really pissed and will lock him up for two weeks,” says Mitchell. “I won’t tell him or he won’t come in. All he had to do was show up, and if the police officers weren’t there they would have dropped the case. Should we have gone out to pick him up and bring him in this morning? Did it once. Do you have to do it again? He’s old enough to make responsible decisions.”
Isaiah too is still out on a warrant. Mitchell, who was out alone last night, stood in the courtyard of Isaiah’s building until he felt reasonably sure he was home. He had a copy of the warrant in the car and drove off looking for a police officer who could arrest him. Two blocks away he saw a police car and rolled down his window to talk to the officer, but the car pulled off. Mitchell knew the cop had seen him, his silver county car, his municipal plates. He chased him for a couple of blocks, but the cop sped away through a parking lot. “Some police officers are very helpful, others are not. If we go out of our way, and they don’t have anything else to do, they’ll help pick up a kid on a warrant. I guess it’s kind of a ‘what can you do for me?’ perception.”
Jamal, who’d been accused of stealing his friend’s bike, was arrested a week ago for allegedly selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, which could mean he’ll be tried as an adult. But he also gave the police a false name and said he was older than he is, so they charged him as an adult and sent him to Cook County Jail. He spent several days there, despite his mother’s frantic attempts to have him transferred to Audy. He came home today on electronic monitoring, and if he goes out of his apartment the small black box that’s strapped around his ankle will set off an alarm in the Criminal Courts Building at 26th and California. Stapleton and Mitchell joke as they drive up about calling him and asking him to meet them downstairs.
Mitchell asks Jamal why he lied about his age.
Jamal shrugs, looks confused, then says, “I was just tryin’ everything I could to get out of the situation.”
“But you lied to the police.” Mitchell pauses. “Maybe you learned a lesson.”
Stapleton asks what happened before he was arrested, and Jamal explains that he was coming home from school and saw some 17- or 18-year-old dude fixing his car.
Mitchell interrupts to tell him not to say “dude,” because it’s a word he shouldn’t use when he goes to court.
Jamal, who’s sitting on the couch, the adults standing over him, nods and says solemnly, “Right. I have to talk in a way that’s appropriate.” He goes on with the story, saying the guy gave him a $20 bill to go buy him some gloves at the hardware store. He went to Ace and didn’t find any gloves, so he went to another store but didn’t find any there either. Then two police officers stopped him and said one of the two $10 bills was marked.
Stapleton ignores the shift from a $20 to a $10 bill and asks, “What kind of gloves?”
Jamal first says heavy work gloves, then rubber gloves.
“The kind that cost $1.50? Why’d he give you $20 to buy gloves that cost $1.50?”
Jamal says nothing. His mother repeats Stapleton’s question.
“Maybe he set you up,” says Mitchell. “Did you think of it that way?”
Jamal’s expression doesn’t change. He sits blinking hard and finally says, “If I had did the crime I’d accept my consequences.”
“I don’t think Jamal’s being entirely honest with us,” says Stapleton on the way back to the car. He guesses Jamal was holding drug money for the guy. “Even if he wasn’t involved then, he might have been the day before or some other time.”
Mitchell says the kids are always saying that someone set them up or that the police planted evidence on them or that the police lied. “Sometimes I believe the kids, because there are injustices that do happen. It’s a reality on the streets. They know it, we know it. And it kind of sucks when you see an injustice happen. But who knows? We’re not there. Is there a chance that these kids did do it? Yeah. But there’s also a chance that they didn’t do it. The more you like them, the more you’d like to believe that they wouldn’t do it.” He says he understands why police officers might be driven to cut corners. “Because of the way the system works, they see the kids–or the criminals–back out on the streets two days later, and they arrest them doing the same thing. ‘What the hell is going on here?'”
They park in the alley next to Rafael’s building. His mother has managed to get him into an outpatient mental-health program that includes schooling; if he fails to meet the requirements it becomes an inpatient program. He starts tomorrow, and he doesn’t want to go. His mother meets Mitchell and Stapleton at the door and loudly, angrily starts ticking off everything Rafael’s done wrong all week, rapidly expanding the list to what he’s done wrong all year, all last year. At one point she says she put him in the outpatient program as a way to “get even” with him for doing poorly in school last semester.
Stapleton manages to interrupt long enough to say it doesn’t seem appropriate that she’s talking in terms of getting even with her own son. Her eyes narrow slightly, and she insists she’s only doing what’s best for him.
Finally Rafael walks slowly into the room and, without looking at his mother, slumps into a chair. She starts yelling at him, shaking her finger at him, saying he’s acting out of hate. He insists he isn’t, but she keeps yelling over him, telling him he doesn’t have to stay in the house, he can leave, fend for himself if that’s what he wants.
Looking dejectedly at Stapleton and Mitchell, Rafael says he doesn’t want to leave. “I just want her to leave me alone. You see how she is. And this goes on all day long. I can’t take it.”
His mother doesn’t stop, and eventually Rafael leaves the room. Stapleton tries to interrupt her several times. “Just listen, Mrs. Rivera, please. You should think about why Rafael’s so angry. It’s not about what’s true or right. It’s about what Rafael perceives as the reason for his anger at you–not is it true, a lie, whatever. You each need to think about what the other believes is true.”
Over an hour has passed by the time they leave. “She didn’t hear,” says Stapleton as he and Mitchell walk down the hallway.
Mitchell says, “You get two or three of those a week–”
“–it wears you out,” says Stapleton.
Another two weeks pass, and now the north-side IPS team has 40 cases. The south-side team has 57, well over the limit of 45. But the cases keep coming.
Rafael got in an argument with his mother over the outpatient program and spent the past two weeks in a residential program, which he hated. Now he wants to do a boot-camp program that’s run by the National Guard, or maybe go into the army.
Isaiah was finally picked up by the police on his warrant and put in Audy for two weeks until his court date. Reda, Mitchell, and Stapleton plan to recommend that he be sent to DOC.
Before he leaves the office Stapleton gets a call from Jamal’s mother, who says she just went into her son’s room and saw his electronic-monitoring bracelet lying on the floor. She doesn’t know how long he’s been gone. She says they’d gone to adult court this morning on the drug case, and on the way home Jamal said he was depressed and just wanted to do his time in jail and get it over with.
Stapleton tells her to first call the police and report that he’s gone, then call her neighbors and ask them to tell her if they see him. He says it would be best if she finds him before the police, because the police will probably fingerprint him, come up with his adult record, and send him back through the adult system.
A week later Jamal is still missing. Isaiah tried to commit suicide and has been put in medical isolation. Reda says he’d told her he wanted another chance, wanted to go into drug treatment again. William’s girlfriend, who’s pregnant, was raped by someone he knows, and he threatened to “take care of” the guy.
The 17-year-old who’s on probation for arson has moved up at the grocery store from stocking to produce. Curtis, the ninth-grader who couldn’t remember the IPS rules, is looking for a job, going to summer school, and making his counseling appointments. “I thought he would’ve screwed up by now,” says Mitchell.
Robert, who finally turned himself in, was found delinquent in the cash-station robbery. Reda was surprised, because she saw so many inconsistencies in the stories the police told. She guesses he’ll get six to seven months in DOC.
Mitchell says he too has sometimes been surprised by judges’ decisions. “I just couldn’t believe listening to some cases in court that there was a finding of delinquency. You think in your mind, it just doesn’t add up. There has to be some level of truth, but what is it? I’ve seen truth happen, and I’ve seen truth not happen.”
He’s also been surprised that some cases have gone against him. One time he was in court trying to have a boy sent to DOC for repeatedly not being home. The last time the kid wasn’t home the family said he wasn’t there, and Mitchell searched the house, as he’s required to, and didn’t find him. “I’m sitting there testifying, getting beat up by the public defender. ‘Did you check under the bed?’ ‘Yes I did.’ ‘In the closet? In the kitchen? In the pantry?’ I was in the house, people are saying they didn’t know where he was. Then in court you hear them lying, and the kid saying he was upstairs. The kid was outside. He beat the violation. I was so pissed off. I made him jump through hoops. But I actually got to like the guy. He was one of my better kids. He knew he burned me, and he would joke about it toward the end of his probation.”
It’s sweltering when Mitchell and Stapleton leave the office, so Stapleton phones the kids and asks them to come downstairs to the air-conditioned car. Luke, who’s on probation for battery, strolls down the sidewalk as they pull up. Two weeks ago, with only two months to go on IPS, he was picked up for possession of marijuana. By rights he should now go to DOC. But Mitchell, Stapleton, and Reda have decided to recommend to the judge that he not be sent to DOC but have his IPS time extended six months and go through another drug-treatment program. They’ve never before asked that this kind of exception be made.
Luke leans on the car and says sulkily, “Now I got all these stipulations. I’ll have to be at school, on time. Drug counseling. Maybe SWAP time. I don’t know about all that.”
“Your alternative is DOC,” says Stapleton sternly. “You have to be doing something that we can tell the judge, or the judge will laugh at us.”
The next kid is a new case, a 16-year-old who was head of security for his gang and a big drug dealer. He lives in his grandmother’s house with his mother and several siblings, all of whom have different fathers; the last grade he completed was seventh. The IPS intake staff rejected the boy, but the judge forced them to take him.
The kid, who’s still on home confinement, is sitting out on the porch with his grandmother, and as soon as he spots the probation officers’ car he disappears inside. His grandmother asks wearily if she can take him to the store, because he’s been wanting to get new gym shoes. “He won’t need new gym shoes on home confinement,” says Stapleton, who suspects the kid is still selling drugs. “If he’s wearing out gym shoes on probation we’ve all got a problem.”
They drive a few blocks to the house of another new kid, this one on probation for attempted battery. “Probably tried to beat someone up and got beat up himself,” says Stapleton.
They’re passing out fliers tonight about another Saturday roundup, and Mitchell hands one to the kid, who’s wearing baggy overalls with a Hoyas logo, a favorite of the Gangster Disciples. “I’d suggest if you come downtown, don’t wear those,” says Mitchell. “You can’t wear things that are gang affiliated.”
The kid opens his eyes wide. “What? It’s Hoyas, Georgetown.”
Mitchell smiles. “What planet are you from?”
Back in the car he says he should have asked the kid to name some Georgetown player who’d graduated.
“Do they graduate?” says Stapleton.
Mitchell laughs. “It would’ve been a trick question.” He says that if the kid showed up at the juvenile court building wearing the overalls, they’d probably just try to make him look foolish by taping paper over the logo.
At the end of the summer William, whose mom said he’d been arrested when he hadn’t, is still on IPS, though he isn’t calling in when he’s supposed to. Sherry has a new job, and the kid who’s on probation for arson is bored working in produce; both are almost through with IPS. The slow-talking Andrew made it off, and Patrick has been so good he was allowed off six months early.
There are plenty of kids to take their places. A polite, talkative 13-year-old who’s on probation for selling drugs and whose older brother was just locked up for the same offense. A 16-year-old who’s on probation for tagging. A sullen 15-year-old who’s on for drug possession and who has gang graffiti all over the headboard of his bed.
Rafael has been picked up for selling crack and is waiting in Audy for his trial. His mother has stopped complaining about him and is loudly insisting he’s innocent, though she slipped and told Mitchell and Stapleton that she went to bed a half hour before he was arrested.
Jamal was picked up by the police when he tried to sneak home to see his mother. When Mitchell visited him in Audy, Jamal said he’d been worried about her. He went to trial on a case that had been pending before he started IPS, was found delinquent, and is now in DOC. But the case in which Stapleton suspected he was holding drug money was thrown out.
Mitchell was out alone one night and picked up the kid who chewed his fingernails, who by then had had a warrant out for his arrest for four months. He was hanging out on a street corner when Mitchell drove up. Their eyes met, and the kid ran into a store. Mitchell chased after him and called to a police officer, who threw the kid down and handcuffed him. “He was lying on the ground, and the officer held his head up so that he could see my face,” says Mitchell. “He kept asking him, ‘Is this your probation officer? Is this your probation officer?’ He wouldn’t answer. Then finally he said yes. He looked like he was going to cry.” o
NOWHERE TO HIDE
“IPS is hard–all type of ways,” says Angelo, who was on IPS for selling drugs a couple of years ago. “I was going to school every day. I was going to counseling. Then I had a 5:30 curfew. It don’t seem that hard, but in your mind it’s hard, because you’ve got to go through that a whole year.”
Angelo, who was 15 at the time, had spent 51 days in the Audy Home. “That was my first time in Audy. I just wanted to get out–anything that the gateman took. They make you feel like nothin’ in there. You can’t speak whenever you want to. They put you on the wall, standing for 45 minutes, because you was talkin’ in the TV room or talkin’ in line. Talkin’ back to the staff, they’ll put you in confinement about three, four days.” He pauses, then adds, “Time goes fast in there, when you don’t think about it. You do the same routine every day. You get used to it and just lookin’ forward to it. ‘I can’t wait to go to school. I can’t wait to go to gym.’ Then you look around and the day’s over and you in your room sleepin’. It’s slow out here.” He laughs. “You can go to school or not go to school. You can go outside or not go outside.”
Twice while Angelo was on IPS home confinement his probation officers came by when he wasn’t there. One time he lied and said he was driving with his uncle and the tire blew. “They said, next time call me.” The second time they gave him an additional two weeks on home confinement.
He remembers being a few minutes late for one of the meetings at the juvenile court building. “They acted like I drove a car or somethin’, but I took the bus. They was yellin’ at me, ‘You’ve got to be on time. Next time you don’t come in on time, I’m going to violate you.’ I used to get mad, but I ain’t goin’ to say nothin’. What’s the use of arguin’ with them if you ain’t goin’ to get nothin’ out of it? They’ll talk to you in a nice way, then when you mess up they do their job. They’ll slam you.”
Angelo never believed he could get away with much. “All I know is they know what we do out here and how we think. Every time I’m thinkin’ somethin’, they already told me what I’m thinkin’ about–like criminal ways, bad ways. They know everything–everybody workin’ in the system. Like the cops. Even Mayor Daley, he probably know how we think too.” He assumes the police and probation officers know what they know because they were once gangbangers like him. And he assumes that like him, many of them are still involved in buying and selling drugs. “Everybody dirty. Cops too. While they sittin’ free, livin’ lovely, we out here sellin’ drugs for them, takin’ the risk. It starts up there–the government, the system–then we come down to the little people like us, tryin’ to make a livin’.”
He says his probation officers told him again and again to straighten up. “Stay home, stay out of trouble. Cut your tail and don’t wear those earrings, don’t wear those clothes. Get a job, go to school. All that. And don’t catch no case.” But four months into his probation he was caught with drugs in his pocket. He’d just started in a new school, where he was still in the bathroom when the bell rang. “I walked out, and the principal grabbed me. But I didn’t know that was the principal. I pushed him. And they searched me, and then I remembered, Oh, I’ve got somethin’ in my pocket. I started cryin’. ‘Let me go, please. Let me go.’ I was goin’ to run on them too, but they took my ID. So what’s the use of runnin’ when you got my picture? Then I can’t go to school or nothin’. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t know. I was sellin’ it, but I had forgot that it was in my pocket.”
Angelo was sent to Audy, then released until his court date. Afraid he’d be convicted and sent to DOC, he tried to disappear but was soon caught in front of his own apartment building. He was sent back to Audy, then went to court. “I was in the bull pen talkin’ to my public defender, and he said I got eight months to a year. When I heard that–I ain’t never did no eight months to a year. I only did a couple of weeks, a month and a half. I started cryin’, because that’s a long way from now, that’s a long, long way. How I gonna do that? Then when I got to DOC I got scared more, because I ain’t used to the system, I ain’t used to the people. It’s hard when you first get there. Everybody look at you low, talkin’ stuff to you. Me, man, you can say whatever you want, just don’t touch me. People get beat to death in there, stabbed to death. Out here you have somewhere to run, somewhere to hide. In there you ain’t got nowhere to hide. Riots kick off, and you standin’ there you get in it too. Chairs hittin’ you even though you don’t want it.”
When he was released from DOC the judge told him that if she ever saw him in her courtroom again he wouldn’t get parole until he was 21. He went back to school but felt marked. “The whole school used to say every time they see my face, ‘There go trouble.’ Like, man, I ain’t makin’ no trouble. Guys messin’ with me. Every time it starts gettin’ trouble, there go my face, a bulletin board. Everywhere I go there’s a teacher keepin’ close supervision on me. They just waitin’ for me to do somethin’. They just want me to get out of their school system–so I go to the next grade, and when I’m 16 they kick me out.”
Last spring, nine months after his release, he was back on probation and home confinement for selling drugs. He’d also been picked up twice for carrying a gun. “I just had it on me for protection. I wasn’t goin’ to shoot nobody. I was just tired of gettin’ shot at.” He says the police told him this time he wasn’t going to get off so easily.
As of the middle of the summer Angelo was still staying inside. He said he’d stopped selling drugs and that if he wasn’t found delinquent in this case he’d never sell drugs again. “I don’t want to be dead. I seen a lot of young kids die. I’m sick of being out there, doin’ all that system, the cops. It ain’t no excitement runnin’ from the police, duckin’ bullets. You got to watch your back all the time. Doin’ the same stuff every day–walk around, sell drugs. I’m just tired of all that. The bad part is you get locked up, and man, all that just to make like 20, 30 dollars or more a day. But when you get locked up, where’s the money at? I don’t want to be locked up. That’s all what’s in my mind now–just don’t go out there and do stupid stuff. And on the streets now it’s different. Somebody could just walk up to you and go, you got a rock? And I’m scared, because he could’ve shot me. Or I’m goin’ to the wrong house or the wrong neighborhood. Your own friends you be with every day don’t even care about you if you get locked up. It’s you against the world. It changed. Now everybody’s jealous or somethin’. There’s always people that want somethin’ of yours.”
His aunt had promised him a job in her restaurant, but he worried that the other employees wouldn’t trust him. “I know they goin’ to think I’m gonna steal some of their stuff. If they lose somethin’ the first criminal they’re goin’ to come for is me. That’s how it is. I ain’t no danger. I never stole a car or robbed anybody. That stuff ain’t worth it. Drive it for a half hour, 15 minutes, and get caught? Robbin’ people? The money, it’ll probably last you for a minute, but the thing you got in your head, what you did to the other person, won’t you feel sorry for them? What if it was your mother?”
His younger brother was now hanging out with gang members, though Angelo warned him not to. His brother told him he wouldn’t make the same mistakes. Angelo smiled. “That’s what I said too. ‘I’m slick. They can’t catch me.’ I just tell him, ‘You ain’t got to listen to a word, but just look at me, look at what I got, look at what I been through. Do you want to be like that?’ I ain’t never seen that I was gonna turn out like this. I always wanted to be a football player, basketball player–somethin’. I wish I’d knowed all this when I was little. I was doin’ all right before I got into this stuff. Fifth grade, sixth grade, I was passin’ by. What I want one of these days is just a normal life, with a job, a wife, and kids. Nothin’ else. Nothin’ big, nothin’ small.”
Two weeks later he wanted a hamburger and fries and went out to sell drugs for a couple of hours. The next week he was arrested after an undercover officer said he’d tried to sell her crack. That time, he said, it wasn’t true.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Matt Mitchell, Natlie Reda, Bill Stapleton phto by Cynthia Howe.