Longform

DIE LIKE A MAN

Page 3 of 7

Arizona ranks sixth nationally in the rate at which it locks up its teenagers, but 48th in its per capita spending on the juvenile justice system. The Governor's Task Force has repeatedly documented and decried the de facto racism of the system, calling for development of treatment programs for minority youths, an increase in the number of minorities running the system and a redress of glaring racial inequities that grow worse from year to year.

"If someone is involved in violent and aggressive behavior, then they should be more likely to be in therapeutic services," says Michael Bronson, chief of childcare for the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation and one of the few high-ranking blacks in the system. "But minorities are more likely to get no services at all."
Bias creeps in everywhere, says Kelly Spencer, chief of case management for the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation. "Most of the gatekeepers look a lot like me," Spencer points out, referring to the fact that he is Anglo. "We're the police who make the arrests, the prosecutors who review the case, the probation officer who recommends placement, the judge who pronounces sentence and the treatment providers themselves. So it's not a revelation that the system is racist. "And the kids get that message all along the way. Their perception is that they've failed. And pretty soon, they just give up on themselves."

The implicit racism of the system is evident to John Arredondo, the head of the Department of Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation. He was hired last year to implement reforms in the newly created department. The department was detached from the adult prison system in 1990 as a result of a 1986 lawsuit claiming that harsh disciplinary measures and the lack of effective treatment violated the civil rights of youths in custody.

"Everyone knows there's overincarceration of minorities. We've got the figures going back to 1980," Arredondo says. "But here it is in 1992, and it's only gotten worse. We have to stop spending all our time gathering statistics and do something."
But the same officials who acknowledge the exhaustively documented bias in the system also agree that in the face of ongoing budget problems, outmoded facilities and a lack of community treatment programs, it will take years to make significant changes.

In the meantime, kids like Henry Cruz will just have to take their chances in a system beset by racial inequities that no one seems willing, or able, to fix.

@rule:
@body:Frosty's life was never easy.
His father was in and out of prison on drug charges, as were several of his older brothers. His mother, Mercy Cruz, has struggled most of her life with a drinking problem.

Frosty grew like some stunted weed pushing through the cracks of an abandoned sidewalk. His presentencing report says he came from a "dysfunctional" family. He completed the fourth grade at Kyrene Elementary School, but could neither read nor write. The report indicates that for several years he lived mostly on the streets, raised in effect by members of the gang to which he belonged. He also started sniffing paint in 1988, and dabbled with marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. "Henry's problem was that he started getting in trouble hanging around with bad company," his mother says. "He would take the blame for it all the time. He was the type that would not snitch or tell on somebody. He would always take the blame to protect his friends."

His first arrest came at the age of 11.
His second came a year later, that time for theft.
In 1988 Frosty was back in court for attempted arson.
He returned later in 1988 for theft, and again in 1989.

All told, Frosty accumulated 23 referrals to various judges. He was placed in mostly Anglo residential treatment programs five times, but he stayed for a total of just 43 days. He felt like a fish out of water in programs so far from his neighborhood, so he'd bolt and return to Guadalupe. Frosty was never very hard to find. He hung out with his homies, or at home, where his mother was making steady progress in pulling her tattered life back together. "The probation officer wasn't willing to give him a chance," says Mercy. "He just wanted to put Henry away because we lived in a small town, a poor town. He just blamed the family the whole way. "And these places they sent him, they just treated him like an animal. They were always putting him down, just because of the town he was raised in." Frosty spent one year living with his brother's family in Guadalupe. He stayed out of trouble for that whole year. He loved playing with his nieces and nephews, friends say. The children often nagged him to read them bedtime stories. He would pick up the book and improvise wildly. Invariably, his fairy tales ended badly--the wolf won. The kids always protested. His brother thought he was just teasing them. It was only later that he realized Frosty was trying to cover for his inability to read.

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Peter Aleshire