How A Teenager's Actions Changed Punishments For Violent Juvenile Offenders Forty years ago this month a 15-year-old boy in New York went on a crime spree that shocked the city and helped change the nature of sentencing minors in America.
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How A Teenager's Actions Changed Punishments For Violent Juvenile Offenders

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How A Teenager's Actions Changed Punishments For Violent Juvenile Offenders

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How A Teenager's Actions Changed Punishments For Violent Juvenile Offenders

How A Teenager's Actions Changed Punishments For Violent Juvenile Offenders

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Forty years ago this month a 15-year-old boy in New York went on a crime spree that shocked the city and helped change the nature of sentencing minors in America. As part of a new WNYC podcast about the juvenile justice system called Caught Radio Rookies brings this story.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Forty years ago today in New York City, a 15-year-old boy shot and killed a stranger on the subway. Over the next two weeks, Willie Bosket went on a crime spree. He murdered a second man, shot another. And eventually, the police caught Bosket. Robert Silbering prosecuted the case.

ROBERT SILBERING: In all my experience, I think that there are certain cases where, for the protection of society, an individual has to be warehoused. I thought he was one of those.

CHANG: But he wasn't locked up for life. He got the maximum sentence for a juvenile at the time - 5 1/2 years. Kaari Pitkin of member station WNYC reports on the life of Willie Bosket, who practically grew up in the juvenile justice system and whose crimes served as the catalyst for its transformation.

KAARI PITKIN, BYLINE: Willie Bosket was raised in Harlem in the 1960s and '70s.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now, we are standing on the corner of 114th Street and Lenox Avenue, which is also...

PITKIN: I walked with Willie's childhood friend to the block they grew up on. She didn't want to use her name to protect her privacy.

So what floor was Willie's family on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right there on the first floor where there's air conditioning in. Right here in this building, and my building was on this side. Oh, man. This just brings back so many memories. (Singing) We are the corporettes (ph), the mighty corporettes...

PITKIN: The corporettes - that was the name of her girl gang on 114th Street.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The mighty corporettes are ready to fight (laughter).

PITKIN: She says the kids on the block had a lot of fun playing double Dutch and tag.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Hot peas and butter, come and get your supper.

PITKIN: But they also saw people murdered - running inside when they heard gunshots. Between 1960 and 1978, arrest rates for violent juvenile crime had tripled in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We actually dodged bullets.

PITKIN: Willie stood out from all the other kids they grew up with. For one, he was smarter than most.

FOX BUTTERFIELD: Spending any time with him at all, you knew that he was brilliant.

PITKIN: Fox Butterfield wrote the book "All God's Children" about Willie Bosket and his family.

BUTTERFIELD: I don't know how many people said to me - people who had worked with him - social workers, psychiatrists had remarked at the time, when they were working with Willie, he could grow up and become president.

PITKIN: The second reason Willie stood out - he was prone to extreme violence. By the time he was 9, he had lit a homeless man on fire, thrown a typewriter out the window at school and attacked his sister after she tattled on him in front of their friend.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He was like, I'm going to shut her mouth once and for all. And he ran in the kitchen and got the long cooking utensil. And he stuck the fork down her throat.

PITKIN: Willie's mom didn't know how to control him. So eventually, she brought him to family court to ask for help. He wound up being sent away to a reform school. And over the next four years, Willie bounced in and out of institutions, causing mayhem everywhere. Until finally at 14, he landed in Brookwood, a secure detention center for boys. There was no real therapy there aside from some group sessions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD BOYS")

WILLIE BOSKET: You know how I used to feel? I didn't care about nothing, man.

PITKIN: That's actually Willie's voice. This is from Alan and Susan Raymond's documentary film "Bad Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD BOYS")

BOSKET: Be in the staff one day. All the money coming in, so that's why I'm going to follow them and be like them. That's all. I don't care.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Willie, the thing is this...

PITKIN: And the staff didn't have a lot of training. But still, in New York in the mid-1970s, the state was reforming the system. And Brookwood's director was committed to that - trying to get kids back into the community, doing away with the more punitive approaches. They were also trying something new with Willie - giving him some privileges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD BOYS")

BOSKET: I be on my own. If I feel like the grass across the road need to be cut, I don't have to tell nobody where I'm going. I just go cut the grass. I was over there today riding the lawn mower. I didn't tell nobody where I was going. You know, I feel free. Even though I'm locked up, I feel free.

SUSAN RAYMOND: Do you think this time you can stay out for good?

BOSKET: Yeah.

S. RAYMOND: How long do you have to stay here before you can go home?

BOSKET: Well, I'm supposed to get release money.

S. RAYMOND: Oh, soon?

BOSKET: Right.

S. RAYMOND: Is that for good? You're going to go home?

BOSKET: Yeah. Yeah.

PITKIN: Soon after that interview, the Raymonds were filming in a hallway. And Willie ran at them screaming...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD BOYS")

BOSKET: Hey, don't do that.

PITKIN: ...Don't do that. And he smashed the camera in Alan's face, giving him a black eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAD BOYS")

S. RAYMOND: Is your camera OK?

ALAN RAYMOND: (Unintelligible).

PITKIN: Willie was released in September 1977 unchanged - perhaps even more violent. And just six months later, Willie and his cousin Herman Spates spent 10 days riding the trains, robbing people and spreading violence. Willie murdered two men - because of the laws at the time, he was tried in family court and could only be sentenced to a maximum of 5 1/2 years. The governor, Hugh Carey, called on the state legislature to change the juvenile justice laws in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGH CAREY: This state has me outraged as far as sentencing is concerned as a practical matter. If this person is mentally unfit to be in society, the person will stay within securer lock up for life.

PITKIN: Carey got his law, so kids as young as 13 can be tried in adult criminal court if they commit murder. But Willie was not affected by the Juvenile Offender Act. He got out at 21 and soon after was rearrested on an attempted armed-robbery charge. Once back inside prison, Willie was more incorrigible than ever. He lit fires and stabbed a guard, getting an additional sentence of 25 years to life. Almost no one visits Willie in prison now, but they used to.

DANIELLE: We'd get up around 5, 4 in the morning. Get to the bus station around 6:00. We'd arrive about 7:30. It's like a hour and a half, two hours away.

PITKIN: This is his niece Danielle. When she was a kid, she used to go visit Willie with his mom who also raised her.

DANIELLE: And then he would come out of that - his room, which was locked, and then into the special cell they built for him visiting. And it was like a Plexiglas with holes in it. But even the holes didn't match up. So he could hear, but he could never be able to stick anything through the glass if he wanted to.

PITKIN: You heard that right. The department of correction built a Plexiglas cell just for Willie. Through the Plexiglas, Willie taught Danielle to read and write and the names of the 206 bones in the human body.

DANIELLE: He was like my dad. He tried, like - and it's unfair 'cause it's a life, like, gone. And I'm not saying, you know, he didn't do bad things. It's just that, unfortunately, the system failed him.

PITKIN: I asked Danielle what she thought about the law created after the murders.

DANIELLE: I think that changing the laws is somewhat necessary because there are children that are incorrigible. You have to kind of wonder, what kind of human being, as a child, can stomach a murder? I can't stomach to watch it on TV, and it's fake. So something is wrong. Society has gotten so hard that when we see that, it's like oh, this person is terrible. We judge them. We don't say, something is wrong. What do we do to fix it?

PITKIN: Willie isn't in that specially-designed Plexiglas cell anymore, but he remains in solitary confinement where he's been for the past 29 years. Since the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978 was passed in the wake of Willie's sentencing, states across the country adopted similar legislation. And now some 100,000 kids a year under the age of 18 are tried in adult criminal court. For NPR News, I'm Kaari Pitkin.

CHANG: This story was reported as part of WNYC's Caught, a new podcast about the juvenile justice system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGUR ROS'S "SIGUR 3 (SAMSKEYTI)")

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