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Steal a car, go to camp: a second chance for young offenders

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He did nothing wrong, Ozzie Rahman insists, even though last year he and a friend were caught with a stolen motor scooter, arrested, and sent to jail.

"Someone sold the scooter to us," says Rahman. "I didn't know it was stolen."

Rahman might have been sentenced to a month in juvenile jail, but he got a break. "They told me right there in juvenile court, "You can either try to beat the rap or you can take the program,"' says Rahman, a 17-year-old high school senior from the southwest side. "I said, 'You mean, if I pass this program you'll wipe the arrest off my record?' They said yeah. It didn't take no genius to figure out what to do."

The program, Vehicle for Change, is an innovative attempt to avoid incarcerating first-time juvenile offenders accused of auto theft. Instead of a trial defendants get nine weeks of therapy, as well as outings to musicals, ballets, and restaurants, and a memorable evening in the woods around a campfire. If they attend all the sessions, keep up with school, and stay clear of trouble, their criminal records are expunged.

The program represents a unique marriage between idealistic social workers and such hardheaded prosecutors as Cook County state's attorney Jack O'Malley.

"We're all about giving kids a second chance," says Coleman Lawton, a case manager for Vehicle for Change. "We're telling them, "OK, you messed up. Now we want you to think about why you messed up and learn from it so you don't mess up again. 'Cause next time you ain't gettin' no second chance."'

Vehicle for Change was born from necessity as much as compassion. By the late 1980s juvenile court was overflowing with cases, and even prosecutors recognized the pointlessness of mixing terrified first-time offenders with hardened young criminals. It's funded by a grant from the Illinois Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, a state-appointed group of politicians and insurance executives, and jointly operated by the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and United Charities.

Each year the Theft Prevention Council takes $1 from every auto insurance premium paid in Illinois; about $600,000 of its budget is used to finance Vehicle for Change.

The program is now in its third year. Whether it gets funded again next year is up to the Theft Prevention Council, whose chairman is Terrance Gainer, director of the Illinois State Police. O'Malley's support can't hurt.

And O'Malley remains very supportive. According to his office, the program does exactly what it's supposed to do: diverts cases from the system and gives kids a second chance. "Many first-time offenders are not necessarily bad kids," says Lana Johnson, the state's attorney's program supervisor for Vehicle for Change. "They did something stupid or they made a mistake. They need a warning."

Much of the credit for the program's success should go to Coleman Lawton, says Johnson. It's Lawton, an army vet and former gang member, who personifies the hard and soft sides of Vehicle for Change. "Coleman is very streetwise--he comes from the community," says Craig Perri, a counselor at United Charities. "He talks tough in a way the kids understand, and yet he's not afraid to show compassion."

Lawton was raised in a family of nine on the west side. "My father wasn't around when I was growing up," says Lawton. "My mother--Geraldine Lawton--was my role model. What my mother called discipline they now call child abuse. My mother would get you for old, and good. My mother'd kick your butt and make you apologize for her doing it.

"I think about it all the time--is that the way to raise kids? Violence doesn't stop violence. A lot of kids you see in jail or in gangs are already getting hit on the head at home and it's not doing any good. You shouldn't punish a kid unless he did something wrong. Kids today need love. They don't need to be berated: "You're stupid, you're dumb, you ain't gonna 'mount to nothin'--just like your dad.' My mother might kick your butt, but then she'd hug you and kiss you and say, "Baby, you know I told you about this.' She had a reason. She just wasn't being nasty. My mother passed in 1990. She was a great lady."

In 1969 Lawton dropped out of Harrison High and joined the army; for three years he was stationed in Germany. He came home to face several years of hard times. "I made mistakes, I paid a price, and I learned," Lawton says. "An old con told me, "If you walk through tall grass and a snake bites you, it's the snake's fault. If you walk through that grass tomorrow and get bit, it's your fault.' Well, I ain't walkin' through the grass no more."

He got his GED, attended two years of junior college, and was working as a gang-intervention counselor when Colleen Jones of United Charities hired him for Vehicle for Change. At least three days a week Lawton, Johnson, and Nisha DeMott, also from the state's attorney's office, head over to the juvenile courthouse to meet with arrested car thieves.

They make a colorful crew, a rare collection of races, backgrounds, and generations. DeMott, 23, came to Chicago from Indiana; Johnson, 24, moved from southern California to attend the University of Chicago.

"For me or Lana it can be intimidating," says DeMott. "I didn't even always understand the kids at first. They'd say "five-oh rolling up.' That means a police car. Or "hype,' which means drug dealer. Or "bun up,' which means in trouble. Now I know the language. I might find myself saying to a kid, "I wouldn't rent a car from a hype.' Coleman knows the language. And nothing intimidates him."

Lawton says his approach is honesty. "I don't make promises I can't keep and I don't tell lies," says Lawton. "If they come in swaggering I tell it straight. "There ain't no pistols in the penitentiary--they take them at the gate. It's just you and the bigger guys. And to them bigger guys you're prime meat.'

"These kids don't scare me. They don't intimidate me. I weigh 272 pounds. I grew up in the street. People know I have past gang experience. It's not something I'm proud about, but it's there. I can say to a kid, "You part of the mob? I'll call your region and tell your governor you were disrespectful to your mother.' That wakes them up. But most of these kids aren't bad kids. They're just teenagers who made stupid mistakes. They're not even sophisticated car thieves. Most of them just strip the column and pop the ignition and drive the car around the block and get caught. Stupid stuff."

If they agree to enroll in the program, the offenders must attend weekly therapy sessions with counselors like Perri. "Some kids really appreciate the chance they have to talk and get things off their chests," says Perri. "Other kids are just manipulators--they tell you what you want to hear. Some are so good at manipulating that it's pathological."

In addition to the counseling sessions, Perri, Lawton, Johnson, DeMott, and other counselors take the students on field trips. "We took them to musicals and ballets," says Lawton. "We took them to the Olive Garden restaurant. The kids say, "Man, they ain't got no hamburgers here.' I said, "No, we ain't eatin' no burger, this is an Italian restaurant.' The kids say, "Hey man, where the napkin at?' I say, "It's wrapped around your silverware.' "No man, that's the linen.' Man, these kids haven't been anywhere except McDonald's. We're trying to show them that there's something else."

The session's high point is the one-day outing to Camp Algonquin in Algonquin, Illinois. "We'll sit around the campfire," says Lawton. "I'll say, "Everybody be quiet. Listen. What do you hear?' "Nothin'.' I'll say, "That's the key. You don't hear no sirens, no cars, no gunfire. It's just peace and quiet. You don't have to act tough and stick out your chest. You can be what you want to be instead of what other people tryin' to make you be."'

At the end of the session there's a graduation ceremony where certificates are awarded. On August 3 they held one in the field house of Marquette Park, at 71st and Kedzie Avenue. About 30 offenders attended with their parents. They ate fried chicken and watched Willie Yates, whose son had graduated from the program, perform a magic show.

"Some kids are fast, some kids get caught--that's the way it happened with my son," says Yates. "There were two kids in the car. My son got caught, the other kid got away--my son refused to reveal his identity. I didn't like it. I was angry. I said, "This isn't what I expected.' But he learned. He paid his price. Just 'cause a kid gets in trouble doesn't mean he's bad. We're giving these kids a second chance. What's wrong with that?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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