Juvenile Injustice


Find a Safe Place, by Alex Lazzarino and E. Kent Hayes, New York: McGraw-Hill, 329 pp., $15.95

A true-life drama, Find a Safe Place accomplishes two things. It conveys an important social message, and it is a "good read." Alex Lazzarino and E. Kent Hayes document through a narrative of three cases the consequences of incarcerating youngsters for whom society seems to find no other recourse. Adrift after his father's sudden death, Matt eventually finds himself in a boys' reformatory. Ralph, a deaf-mute but a perceptive, lively teenager, arrives at the same place because neither his mother nor his small town can understand his peculiar behavior, and what people do not understand, they often fear. Finally, Tony also finds himself behind bars, but for a different reason. Ralph and Matt are neglected and dependent youngsters, but Tony has lived a delinquent lifestyle in a ghetto environment.

The authors err, however, in lumping Tony in with the others. Ralph and Matt are basically victims of injustice, but Tony is no victim. He has outmaneuvered a host of people who have attempted to hold him accountable and help him. Undaunted by the system, his criminal record continued to grow.

The reader feels sympathetic to Tony because of his background—a squalid environment and a mother who "lived in a drugged fog." However, Tony's response to his environment is to victimize others. The authors would have us believe that this was a natural, almost excusable, response to the oppressive conditions of his life. But, of course, people who suffer make choices other than to commit crimes. Tony had numerous opportunities to be supervised in the community, but the judge finally ran out of options and committed Tony to a correctional facility. Neither Ralph nor Matt were so fortunate as to be given repeated chances to live in society.

The authors' message is so important that it is too bad they diluted it by lumping Tony, already a career delinquent, with the others. For there is a crying need to focus attention on youngsters who are wrongly caged in conditions under which they suffer physical and spiritual degradation.

Find a Safe Place is not another lurid account of atrocities behind bars. In fact, an outstanding feature of this book is that the description of what transpires in a reformatory is heavily psychological. The boys' tendencies to languish and become indifferent to others, to sink to the lowest common denominator, or to believe the worst about themselves are vividly documented.

Another strength of the book is the balanced and thereby credible portrayal of a spectrum of attitudes shown by those to whom these youngsters are entrusted. There is the overseeing cynical cottage parent who willfully allows the most sadistic teenage inmate to do for him his work of keeping the other inmates in line. There are the well-meaning judges and jailers who are compassionate but, because of their roles, see no way to alter the system and thus enforce what they find odious. Finally, there is a tiny minority of adults who care and are creative and courageous enough to defy the system, risking their careers in the process.

Although the stories of Matt, Ralph, and Tony are set in "mid-America of the 1960s," we are warned from the beginning that the problems of dependent, neglected children are at least as serious in the 1980s. "Think about the waste," we are admonished at the end. Long before ever penning these final words, the authors achieved their purpose. It is all but impossible to put this book down without getting the message long before the last page.

Stanton E. Samenow is a criminology expert and the author, most recently, of Inside the Criminal Mind.