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Car Thief7 History*

At just 7, boy who stole car has history that's troubled, troubling

Howie Padilla and Chris Graves

Star Tribune

Published Dec. 19, 2002 BOY19

Most school days, Isabelle Bird Horse watches through a hall window of her Minneapolis apartment building as her 7-year-old grandson boards his school bus.

But twice this month, she said, he raced to the bus quicker than her weak knees and cane could take her to her lookout point. Both times, Bird Horse, 51, thought the boy was safely on his way to school, she said -- not out on neighborhood streets driving in stolen vehicles.

As she talked about the boy on Wednesday, Bird Horse, his legal guardian, hadn't seen him since Tuesday morning, less than an hour before he stole his second car in 11 days and crashed it into another car carrying a Minneapolis woman and her two children. He is in protective custody as Hennepin County child protection workers look into his home life.

It isn't the first time they have been involved.

In 1999, the parental rights of Bird Horse's daughter were terminated because of chronic chemical dependency and anger problems.

She "had the opportunity to create a foundation that would assist her in making positive changes for herself," according to the county's termination ruling. "Instead [she] created a labyrinth of lies that brought her back to the place she began. . . . She has continued to use alcohol and marijuana despite at least six referrals to chemical dependency treatment programs."

The mother also had told investigators that she drank heavily during her pregnancy with the boy.

The boy's father wasn't an option because he had "abandoned" the boy, failing to support him "financially or in any other way," the ruling said. In January 2000, jurisdiction over the boy, who is part American Indian, was given to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

In October 2001, Bird Horse traveled to South Dakota to retrieve him. It wasn't until January of this year that she was given legal custody of her grandson.

She proudly shows off the letter announcing the custody and says raising the boy, who has been found to be developmentally delayed and having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is a task she gladly undertakes -- "He's my blood."

"The odds were against him from the start," she said while sifting through photos of her grandson Wednesday night. "But since I've had him, I've taught him to say grace before dinner. I'm teaching him manners. I'm trying to get him help.

"But I've only had him a year," she said. "Somebody else had him for six years."

On Tuesday, the boy was taken to St. Joseph's Home for Children after he stole the second car, which had been left running in the 3400 block of Elliot Avenue S. just before 8 a.m. and crashed it into another car. A 10-year-old boy riding in that car sustained minor injuries.

All children taken to the home are assessed, said David Sanders, director of Hennepin County's Children and Family Services.

An unusual case

To many who work with troubled kids, the case raises red flags.

"With a child this young -- and that's the point, that the child is this young -- this would really need to be a family-centered approach," said Mary Magnuson, clinical supervisor at Family and Children's Service in Minneapolis. "Anyone offering help would need to understand the family's concerns and the family's feelings about their own parenting skills."

In the Dec. 6 incident, the boy stole a sport-utility vehicle at about 7:30 a.m. in the same neighborhood. He hit several trees and retaining walls. No one was hurt in that case. Authorities took the boy to St. Joseph's after being unable to find Bird Horse, police reports said.

Bird Horse said that when the boy was returned to her, she grounded him, didn't let him watch TV and had him stand in a corner.

When the boy's uncle, Asher Bird Horse, asked him why he took the vehicle, he said, "I want to be a good driver when I grow up."

County's options

Children younger than 10 can't be charged with a crime in Minnesota, but officials get involved in their lives in several ways.

Sanders said that the county could do some things with the 7-year-old boy aimed at protecting him and steering him away from crime.

Officials could assess him, the crime and his home life to determine if the county should file a petition in Juvenile Court seeking to temporarily remove him from his home until officials can do a more extensive investigation, Sanders said.

The boy's case is different from many others because he is under the care of a different guardian than he was in 1999, when his mother's parental rights were terminated.

"If it was the same caregiver, it definitely would" raise county concerns, he said.

But, he added, because the boy is being cared for by a different guardian, "it probably depends on the circumstances that went into placing the boy with her."

Sanders said that because the boy is part American Indian, the county would defer to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on placing the child. "If we had concerns, we could raise an objection," he said.

If authorities do not file a petition with Juvenile Court, Sanders said, officials would see if the boy would qualify to be part of a program aimed at steering younger offenders away from crime. That program, which is called Delinquents Under 10, has been operating in the county for seven years.

Social workers, psychologists, welfare officials and a host of others join forces to get long-term help not only for a child but also for siblings, parents or caregivers.

Juvenile crime experts across the country have been watching the effort with hope. A study of the program by Wilder Foundation researchers two years ago found small signs of success, but no cure-all for juvenile delinquency. The study looked at the 33 kids at the time.

In that study, the kids in the program were found to have committed fewer and less serious offenses and had better school attendance than delinquent children who were not part of the program, the study found. Researchers also found that one stable person can make an extraordinary difference in a kid's life.

But the report found that the kids, primarily minority boys from chaotic homes and high-crime neighborhoods, were far from cured.

The goal is to have children enter the program at age 6, 7 or 8 and stay with it until age 18.

Criminologists have found that elementary-age children who commit crimes are two to three times more likely to later commit serious, violent and chronic juvenile crime than other children.

Howard Snyder, head of the National Juvenile Data Analyses Project at the U.S. Department of Justice, has called Hennepin County's program "a great idea." He said diverting the youngest offenders is critical because one out of three career criminals started in crime before age 13.

Gains and losses

For Bird Horse, the wait until she can see her grandson again is difficult. On Wednesday, she showed off pictures of the boy and recalled her first year with him. She wept when she remembered his first birthday cake, which he received this year, and as she looked at his pile of shoes.

"He used to say that at the other places he lived, people used to steal his shoes," she said. "Now, every day, he asks me which ones he should wear."

Staff writer Paul Levy contributed to this report.

- The writers are at hpadilla@startribune.comand cgraves@startribune.com.


December 19, 2002

Inmates Go Free to Help States Reduce Deficits


EXINGTON, Ky., Dec. 18 — They began walking out of the Fayette County Jail here this afternoon, the first of 567 Kentucky state prison inmates that Gov. Paul E. Patton abruptly ordered released this week in a step to reduce a $500 million budget deficit.

Governor Patton said only nonviolent offenders were being given the early mass commutation. But those let out today included men convicted of burglary, theft, arson and drug possession, some of them chronic criminals.

"A percentage of them are going to recommit a crime, and some of them are going to be worse than the crimes they are in for," Mr. Patton acknowledged in announcing the emergency releases. But, he added, "I have to do what I have to do to live within the revenue that we have."

It is a quandary that confronts an increasing number of politicians across the nation in this time of deficits. After three decades of building ever more prisons and passing tougher sentencing laws, politicians now see themselves as being forced to choose between keeping a lid on spending or being tough on crime.

As a result, states are laying off prison guards, or giving prisoners emergency early releases like those in Kentucky. Some states have gone so far as to repeal mandatory minimum sentences or to send drug offenders to treatment rather than to prison in an effort to slow down the inflow of new inmates.

And in other locales, prosecutors or courts have placed a moratorium on misdemeanor cases like shoplifting, domestic violence and prostitution.

"What has happened is that as corrections has grown so enormously and consumed so many resources, it has finally become a target for budget cutters as the economy has turned down," said Chase Riveland, a former director of the corrections departments in Washington and Colorado and now a prison consultant.

The pressure to change stems from the math. Since the early 1970's, the number of state prisoners has risen 500 percent, making corrections the fastest growing item in most state budgets.

With more than two million inmates currently in state and federal prisons and local jails, the bill for corrections has reached $30 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To cope, Iowa has laid off prison guards. Ohio and Illinois have closed prisons.

Montana, Arkansas and Texas, along with Kentucky, have discovered loopholes that allow them to release convicted felons early, getting around the strict truth-in-sentencing laws and no parole policies passed in the 1990's that were supposed to prevent such releases.

In Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating, a conservative Republican who added 1,000 new inmates a year to the state's once small prison system, has asked the Pardon and Parole Board to find 1,000 nonviolent inmates to release early as a result of the state's budget crisis.

"Oklahoma has always prided itself on being a law-and-order state," said Cal Hobson, a Democrat who is president of the State Senate. "Now we've got more law and order than we can afford."

In Virginia Beach, Commonwealth Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III, the local prosecutor, has announced that because of state cutbacks to his office's budget, he will no longer prosecute the 2,200 misdemeanor domestic violence cases he gets a year.

"I deeply regret that the victims of domestic violence will no longer have a prosecutor on their side," said Mr. Bryant, a Republican. "But something had to go. I'm two assistant attorneys short."

All of these changes will save some money, but will not undo the fiscal imbalances caused by the prison boom of the 1980's and 1990's, said Nicholas Turner, director of national programs at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York, a research organization.

To make larger savings, a number of states have begun to look at more fundamental changes in the very laws they passed over the past two decades.

Last week the legislature in Michigan, faced with a budget deficit and prison overcrowding, voted to repeal the state's strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug crimes which have led to even life sentences for possession of cocaine or heroin. John Engler, the departing Republican governor, is expected to sign the bill into law.

In Kansas, the Kansas Sentencing Commission will recommend to the Legislature next month a new policy under which people arrested for simple drug possession, with no record of prior arrests for violent crimes or drug trafficking, will be placed in mandatory treatment instead of sent to prison.

Since the sentencing commission is made up of a bipartisan group of legislators, as well as prosecutors and judges, the plan is expected to pass the Legislature.

Savings under the new policy will be sizeable, said Barbara Tombs, the executive director of the commission.

About 1,500 of Kansas' 9,000 inmates are projected to be eligible, with the cost for a year in drug treatment about $2,500 compared with $21,000 for a year in prison. And, because Kansas had earlier eliminated most drug treatment in its prisons, the commission forecasts that recidivism should be lower, saving the cost of locking drug addicts up over and over.

"I think this is critical for Kansas," Ms. Tombs said. "We are at capacity now in our prisons, and we are either going to have to build a new prison, which we cannot afford, or institute alternative sentencing policies for some offenders."

"We don't want to do what Kentucky is doing," Ms. Tombs said, "letting dangerous people out the back end."

Similarly, in Alabama, where a judge has fined the state for dumping inmates on county jails, a sentencing commission will make reform recommendations to the Legislature early next year to stem the inflow of prison inmates. These measures include restoring flexibility for judges in making sentencing decisions and placing more offenders on probation or in halfway houses rather than in the state's prisons.

Georgia, Utah, Idaho and Nebraska are all considering some version of these sentencing overhauls to reduce the number of new state inmates.

Mr. Turner, noting that most of the states making fundamental changes are controlled by Republicans, said: "This seems like one of those Nixon goes to China things. After years of being tough on crime, only Republicans have the credentials to change prison policy."

Moreover, Mr. Turner said, the politicians making these reforms, and those ordering early release of inmates, have been helped by the decline in the crime rate over the past decade, reducing public anxiety about crime.

A few states have bucked the trend. New York, for example, which has one of the largest prison systems, has been able to avoid early releases or major changes in sentencing because the large drop in crime in New York City has meant fewer people going to prison.

In Lexington today, Vincent Thomas walked out of the Fayette County Jail a free man, without even the need to report to a parole officer or pass urine tests for drugs.

Mr. Thomas paused to shake hands with Glenn Brown, the county jailer, said thanks to Governor Patton for releasing the 567 inmates and promised he would stay clean and not come back.

Ray Larson, the Fayette commonwealth's attorney, expressed skepticism.

"By letting them out, we know they are sooner or later going to commit more crimes," said Mr. Larson, a Democrat who has been elected prosecutor here since 1982.

The seven men released from the Fayette County Jail today, Mr. Larson noted, had a total of 21 prior felony convictions and 130 convictions for misdemeanors. And they probably have even longer records, Mr. Larson said, because in Kentucky first-time offenders seldom get convicted except for the most serious crimes.

"It is a discouraging day to people in law enforcement," Mr. Larson said. "It will probably follow that the crime rate will rise, and judges will be reluctant to sentence these people to prison only to see them released."

Governor Patton, a Democrat, specified that those released were all convicted of Class D felonies, the lowest level under Kentucky law. They had an average of 80 days remaining on their sentences.

Most of those released today have been held in county jails around Kentucky, instead of in the state's prisons, because Kentucky's prison population — now more than 15,000 — has grown faster than the number of state prison beds.

The releases, some of which took place today, with another batch to be freed on Friday, will result in an immediate savings of $1.3 million, Governor Patton said.

Some politicians expressed support for the governor's action, saying they do not oppose the early release of nonviolent offenders but do oppose higher taxes.

"It's very expensive to warehouse someone who's not a threat to the community," said Dan Kelly, a Republican who is majority leader in the State Senate.

On the other hand, Kentucky's attorney general, Ben Chandler, a Democrat, said, "It is my opinion that the amount of time a criminal serves in prison should be based on the crime committed, not on the balance of the state treasury."

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