Why did you write this book?

I first became interested in juvenile justice in 1972 when my husband, a child psychiatrist on the faculty of the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston, was asked by a federal judge named unbelievably, William Justice, to evaluate the reform schools in Texas which were being sued. After months of delays by the Texas Youth Commission  (one could only assume they were cleaning house) my husband went in.  Although he usually slept in the reformatories, he also rented a motel room where he went during the day while the inmates were in class, taped his observations, and mailed the tapes home where I listened to them and wept, wondering what these awful places could possibly have been like before they supposedly cleaned up the problems. Finally, some of my husband’s testimony was quoted in the court’s decision to close the schools.

Satisfied that the problems were being addressed, juvenile justice did not become one of my priorities until the 1990s, when children began to be tried as adults. Suddenly, seeing children the ages of my students when I was a junior high school principal on television in adult courts shocked me. Appalled, I wanted to do something. As a fan of Charles Dickens and having spent a great deal of my adult life in the south, where good politicians tell good stories, I decided to tell a story, and Two Sons was born.

Why did the United States begin trying children as adults?

During the seventies and eighties there was a large increase in crime, and our response was punitive; reducing the discretion of judges, instituting higher penalties, implementing mandatory sentencing and reducing parole opportunities.  As a result, even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population and incarcerate a higher percentage of our population  than any other country, even the most heinous dictatorships. The juvenile justice system, which was once a model for the world, remained unchanged until an ultraconservative Princeton sociologist, now at the University of Pennsylvania, John DiLulio, published a paper in the early nineties .

DiLulio is co-author of a popular textbook, American Government, which the College Board criticized for inaccuracies, and he was criticized by the Director of NASA for inaccurate statements about global warming when he briefly held the Office of Faith Based Initiatives under George W. Bush. His paper, again based on inaccurate data, stated that by 2010, we would have 270,000 super-predator children, sociopaths like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer.  The paper received wide coverage in the media and caused a flurry of legislative action. By 1997, all but three states could try children as adults, and now they all can. Some states have set an age at which children can be tried as adults, twelve or fourteen, but others have no age limit. Furthermore, in many states, the decision as to whether a child is to be tried as an adult or a juvenile no longer rests with the juvenile court judge, but has been  moved to the District Attorney.  Some states even incarcerate juveniles in regular prisons, which has drastically increased the suicide rate.  Most appalling, in many states, in an age when I can Google myself and read about a talk I gave in San Diego in 1994, juvenile names and often photographs are released to the media for minor crimes. Juvenile records may still be sealed, but a juvenile indiscretion will exist on the Internet forever.

Furthermore, juveniles tried as adults are subject to the same penalties as adults, including the newly enacted mandatory sentences. As a result, even though in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles who had not committed capital crimes could not be given life sentences with no chance of parole, over 2500 juveniles sentenced as adults for murder, a sizable number under the age of fifteen, are still serving life sentences with no hope for parole. And not everyone who is convicted of murder actually killed someone. Just being there when someone is killed during the commission of a crime can result in a murder conviction – for example, the person driving the car in an armed robbery. Ironically, although they will never get it, Charles Manson and David Bercowitz (the Son of Sam killer), sentenced before mandatory penalties went into effect, are both eligible for parole. In Germany, regardless of the sentence or the crime, everyone is eligible for parole in a maximum of fifteen years. Again, that doesn’t mean they are paroled.

What is the International Convention on the Rights of Children?

 The Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in November, 1989 and forbids conscription into the military, execution and life sentences for those under eighteen. To date 194 countries have ratified the convention, including all members of the UN, except the United States and Somalia. At the time the convention was introduced, only four countries in the world would execute anyone who committed a crime under the age of eighteen and we were not only one of the four, but after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on executions in 1978 until 2004, when the Court ruled such executions were cruel and unusual punishment, we executed 22 people in that category.

Why is the antagonist in Two Sons, a victims group?

I believe the role of victims in determining sentences and in parole decisions has turned our justice system into a scenario for revenge. In fact, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens says he would change his vote on lifting the ban on the death penalty because of the removal of those against the death penalty from juries in capital cases and the ability of victims to testify at sentencing has changed the balance.

Was there a reason you made James black?

Blacks as a whole, and black juveniles in particular, are disadvantaged in our current justice system. 69% of the children sentenced to life without parole are black, and black juveniles are much more apt to be tried as adults and/or incarcerated. In the Chicago detention center, only 1.4% of those incarcerated are white Anglos.  

Why does Harry have so much money? Are you trying to say that a poor man could not have saved James?

This is a frequent question. I wanted Harry to be famous, and I wanted him to be powerful, to be used to getting his own way so I could set up the conflict with Father Osmund. I didn’t mean to comment on the importance of money in getting true justice, but that is probably true.

Is there a place like St. Vincents?

The most important factors in reducing recidivism are education, mentors, and maintaining connection with family while incarcerated and support when released. St. Vincents has all those, and there actually was, for a brief time, a reform school in a small town in Texas where my husband was on the board. The entire community became involved, took the kids fishing, etc. Rather than a town, I chose a monastery with retired priests.




Leave a Reply