Look Out Below!

Joe was stunned. Curtis is the youngest in a family of four boys and one girl. He's basically a good kid, his parents say. Chubby cheeks, freckled nose, A-minus average, collector of baseball cards, rider of dirt bikes. He's never been in trouble with the police other than being ticketed for driving a moped without a license. "All of a sudden," his father says, "Curtis is facing a record and several years of probation."

Now, Joe is from Kansas City, Missouri. And when a fourteen-year-old boy accidentally burns a tree in Kansas City, Missouri, he apologizes, pays damages and promises not to do it again. Case closed. Why was Curtis headed to court?

The Geisterts called the district attorney's office and told prosecutors Joe had paid for damages. The case moved forward anyway.

"All I know is, a rocket want off and destroyed our property and could have destroyed our home," Noanie Geistert says. "It was a dry winter. It's lucky it hit the tree. People need to realize this could have been devastating. No one came to apologize. No one spoke to us. We didn't hear from anyone for months. We only heard from them when this went to court. We didn't pursue this; the DA did. It's out of our hands."

Joe called an attorney. He called several attorneys. He didn't get it. "It seems there are lighter ways of handling these issues," he says. "They seem to be going overboard and trying to make a crime out of something that wasn't.

"I'm an ex-Marine," he continues. "Something we learned doing our police duties was that you had to follow the intent of the law, not the letter of the law. Somehow we've lost that. Kiddos are rambunctious. They shoot off rockets. They ride bikes on the wrong side of the road. I realize there are problems with juvenile crime, but they're attacking everything with zero tolerance. It's a mistake to say anything equals anything. The kid who shoots someone is not the same as the kid who shoots off rockets. We have to judge these on a case-by-case basis."

Pam Gorden, the county's juvenile division chief, says that's exactly what's being done. Before an incident involving a juvenile enters the system, a number of factors are considered, such as prior record, victim rights and community safety. If the Caulfield case is moving ahead, there must be a reason.

"The slant of the case is in the eye of the beholder," she says. "Parents often have a completely different take than law enforcement, the victim or the DA's office. Just because the parents say it's a big nothing doesn't mean that's the situation."

The district attorney's office doesn't have a zero-tolerance policy, Gorden says; that's why there are juvenile diversion programs allowing first offenders to make amends through community service and counseling, among other things, in exchange for having charges dropped. As for cases of boys-will-be-boys mischief, police and prosecutors weed them out every day. Instead of worrying about what's wrong with the system, Gorden adds, perhaps parents should worry about "why their kid got involved in the system in the first place."

Curtis has a hearing scheduled for June 18.
"I've been advised the best thing to do is to plead guilty," Joe says. "But my son says he's innocent. If you're innocent, you have to plead innocent. We're trying to teach kids respect for the law and the courts, but that's hard to do when they're being unjustly dealt with. If you make someone feel like a criminal, will they act like one? I wonder about that. You have to some integrity over these issues. You have to make a stand.

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