Boasting that he could readily supply the names, addresses and phone numbers of “future criminals,” Mobile County, Ala., District Attorney John Tyson Jr. has built a database of more than 900 youths who’ve been truant from school or suspended.
“They are the ones who won’t graduate, who will cause all the problems in class, be sent to the principal’s office frequently, and who may even wind up in jail,” Tyson says on his website.
Tyson says he’s trying to help the kids with early intervention, but several juvenile justice advocates blasted it as another useless effort at criminal profiling that can only hurt youth by labeling them as troublemakers.
“To mark kids who make mistakes the way he is doing, even before they’ve had a juvenile justice contact, is a travesty,” says Rick Kauffman, who served as one of the crisis team leaders in Jefferson County, Colo., after the Columbine High School shooting there in 1999, and later helped in the production of an FBI report on threat assessment.
An investigator in Tyson’s office, Lanora Timmons, spearheaded the project by culling 206 “primary candidates for intervention” from a list of 3,000 students who had been suspended from public schools. “If they had three or more suspensions, they were placed on the primary list,” Timmons says on the office’s website. Others who made the list include students with two or more violations for either drugs or weapons.
The number of databased youngsters has mushroomed to 905, according to the Gadsden Times, which quoted Tyson as saying he wouldn’t rule out using the database to investigate crimes. Parents’ names have been cross-referenced with a state court database to see who has been through the legal system, including civil cases and divorces. Tyson approved this practice, he says, to find out more about the children’s family environments.
Tyson, who was elected to a six-year term in 1998 and is being touted by his fellow Democrats in the state as a candidate for Congress, says he would like to concentrate his efforts on the 60 percent of youths in the database who have never appeared in juvenile court. He wants his staff “or those of other agencies” to coordinate social and legal services for this targeted group.
“I think those 550 represent our greatest opportunity for intervention,” he told the Times. (His office did not return several calls from Youth Today requesting an interview.)
“If there’s something we can do to help early intervention with children … we would want to do that,” says Mobile Schools Superintendent Harold Dodge, who has provided Tyson with everything but academic records (which Tyson has not requested). “Investigators could easily call the school system and get the information anyway.”
‘Fast Track’ to Jail
The effort has met unbridled opposition in, among other places, the county that has thought as hard as any other about what kind of early intervention might stop youth from turning violent – Jefferson County, home of Columbine.
“The FBI determined in its report that there’s no way to profile, for instance, a school shooter,” Kauffman says. “They determined that half the population of the country would fit this profile.”
Actually, the information-sharing there works in reverse from the Mobile setup. A year after the Columbine shootings, the Colorado Legislature passed the Weapons at School Information Sharing bill which, according to Kauffman, requires local district attorneys to report all instances of juveniles charged with a crime to the school district within 72 hours. He says officials from the schools, the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office determine whether a youth should remain in school or go to an alternative setting, including juvenile detention.
Child and family advocates have, by and large, greeted Tyson’s creation with disdain and outrage.
“D.A. Tyson didn’t invent profiling kids,” says Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute. “The RAND Corporation, among others, have tried to predict future delinquencies and failed.”
Schiraldi says such efforts wind up “mislabeling and misdirecting kids.” This labeling effect, he says, causes kids “to be shunned by their peers and community” and “put on the fast-track to incarceration.”
Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, says that “people have tried for many years to predict who the criminals will be while they are young, and none of these efforts have been worthwhile.” He notes that one theory was based on “the arsenic content in a kid’s hair.”
Soler says Tyson’s approach “ignores efforts to work with the individual child by using criteria that lump him or her in broad categories.”
More insidiously, Soler believes the database approach is a “get-rich-quick criminal justice scheme that ignores the hard work necessary to bring fair, honest justice to those children and families who live near or below the poverty line. It actually minimizes efforts to improve the juvenile justice system.”
Tyson’s website says: “Each intervention will be tailored to the child’s particular circumstances – in some cases, it might be a stern talk with police; in others, a social worker might be able to help the child work through difficulties at home.”
Contact: (251) 574-8400, www.mobile-da.org.