Ex-Offenders Shine as Success Stories

Alana Keynes
July 1, 1999

Amid all the talk in Washington and in state capitals about cracking down on juvenile offenders, some people seem to have forgotten the rationale for the existence of the juvenile justice system: to help youngsters who’ve run afoul of the law to straighten out and grow up to lead productive adult lives. It happens routinely; just ask former Sen. Alan Simpson (convicted at age 17 of destroying federal property), or federal prosecutor Terry Ray (who spent seven years in the juvenile justice system, including a stint for stabbing a classmate).

They are among the former offenders cited in a new book, “100 Years of Juvenile Court 1899-1999: Success Stories of the Juvenile Justice System,” by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) and the Child and Family Justice Center.

“The only time juvenile justice gets publicity is when someone shoots up a school,” says JPI Executive Director Vincent Schiraldi. “Lots of kids who get in trouble when they’re younger go on to lead productive and happy lives.” He hopes the book will demonstrate that “the ideal of juvenile court is very much alive and needed.”
Below are several of the stories. One common theme: youth workers who inspired these juvenile offenders to fulfill their real potential. Cost: $7. Contact: (202) 678-2843, or www.cjcj.org/centennial.

Claude Brown

By the time he was 8 years old, Claude Brown was committing petty crimes like theft and spending large parts of his days on the streets of New York City. Stealing from cash registers, shoplifting, fighting and playing hooky landed him in a juvenile home but didn’t deter him. At age 11, a juvenile court sent Brown to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate New York for two-and-a-half years.

That stay marked his first relationships with positive adult role models, such as the school’s executive director, who kept in touch with Brown even after he left. Brown continued committing crimes, however, and was sent to a tougher juvenile facility, where he again was touched by adults such as “Mrs. Cohen, who gave Brown books to read, and encouraged him to finish high school and told him he was smart enough to go to college.”
Yet negative influences outweighed positives. Brown moved on to drug dealing and nearly died after being shot in the abdomen. His turning point came when he was confronted with choosing whether to shoot another gang member for stealing his drugs. Brown decided that life on the streets was too risky. He worked his way through night school, then went to college.

Brown is an accomplished author best known for “Manchild in the Promised Land,” a biography that sold 4 million copies. Brown now spends time with young offenders who are locked up. Today, he realizes, those youths are more likely to go to crumbling, overcrowded juvenile detention facilities or to adult prisons rather than to nurturing places like Wiltwyck. “There should have been a hundred more of this type of facility,” he says.

Derrick Thomas

Derrick Thomas’ legal troubles started around age 13 — about the time his father, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, was declared dead instead of missing in action. Thomas and a crew of neighborhood youngsters stole bikes, motorcycles and cars, amassing a gun collection along the way. He excelled at school sports, but at 14 was sent to juvenile detention for burglary.

A counselor in the detention facility recommended Thomas for the Dade Marine Institute (DMI), an alternative day school and affiliate of the Tampa-based Associated Marine Institute. He was “despondent,” but developed a special bond with the director and a youth worker. They helped Thomas learn to set short-term and long-term goals, and instilled him with ambition to go to college. He finished the program early, finished high school (lettering in four sports), and won a football scholarship at the University of Alabama. The linebacker was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, and made All-Pro each of his 10 years in the NFL.

He also created the Third and Long Foundation, which provides social, cultural and educational opportunities for inner-city kids, including reading programs and summer camps with character-building activities modeled after some of the activities at DMI. He has also testified before Congress and the Missouri General Assembly urging more delinquency prevention programs.

Dennis Sweeny

With his father usually drinking or working, and his mother working with needy children, no one at home noticed young Dennis Sweeny’s petty crimes — setting grass fires and stealing candy. He eventually moved up to burglaries, and was arrested at 15 for stealing watches from an amusement park. His next arrest was for possession of a stolen handgun, for which he spent two months in San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center. He tutored his cell mate in reading and interacted with the probation staff. “The counselors really played with the kids and spent time with them,” he says.

After his release Sweeny completed high school, enrolled in the U.S. Marines, then went to college. While at San Francisco State College he returned to the Youth Guidance Center — as a part-time counselor for the Juvenile Probation Department.

Sweeny worked his way up in the department to senior counselor at the department’s facility for sentenced youth. He also earned masters degrees in social work and public administration. In 1984 he became the department’s chief juvenile probation officer.
“If I would have been tried as an adult, and would have had an adult conviction on my record, my life never could have turned out this way,” he says.

Alan Simpson

Playing with rifles was one of Simpson’s favorite activities as a child. He and some pals would steal rifle ammunition from local hardware stores and go find someplace to shoot. When he was 17, he and three others were arrested for shooting mailboxes, i.e., destroying federal property. Simpson was sentenced to two years of probation.
His juvenile probation officer, J.B. Mosley, visited Simpson at pool halls, school and home. “He cared about me,” Simpson says. Simpson got into trouble one more time — arrested at 20 for fighting with a drunken friend.

Simpson enrolled in the army and received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from the University of Wyoming. He eventually spent over a decade in the Wyoming Legislature, rising to become speaker, before being elected as the Republican candidate to the U.S. Senate. When he kicked off his 1978 campaign, he singled out Mosley as an influence who had helped him make it to that moment. Simpson served in the Senate for two decades.

Simpson believes in giving juvenile offenders a second chance and that most will rise past their early indiscretions. But he also supports making juvenile records publicly available. “I say, expose the little bastards,” says the now-Harvard professor.

Terry Ray

Terry Ray grew up on the south side of Chicago and by age 11 was getting into trouble for fighting. He was repeatedly thrown into the Audy Home, a juvenile detention center. There he met “Ms. Sybil,” who was in charge of cleaning the home, but who also made an impression on him by always offering a smile or hug, and consistently picking him to head a cleaning crew.

But Ray’s life deteriorated to the point where he was bringing weapons to school, fighting with students and teachers, and living on the streets — so angry that he says he could have easily killed someone. He bounced around in foster homes and landed at the St. Charles Youth Center, run by the state corrections department. There a counselor loaned him Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land,” which inspired Ray. He also was emotionally touched by a counselor who talked with him often and bought him candy bars.

After his release, Ray continued in and out of juvenile facilities for offenses such as gun possession and theft. But he also completed an electronics program at one of those facilities, went on to college for a psychology degree, then went to Northwestern University Law School. He eventually became a federal prosecutor and is now a criminal defense lawyer. He also serves as a youth mentor. Key to his rehabilitation, he says, were youth workers who took a few minutes a day to know him and show that they valued him.

Ronald Laney

Ronald Laney’s mother moved him and his four siblings from North Carolina to Jacksonville, Fla., to escape their abusive alcoholic father. “Suddenly I was an urban kid. I got introduced to crime real quick,” he says. He was arrested at 15 for fighting. That started a string of arrests for burglary — police dragged him out of his eight grade class for the bust — and fighting. He was on a first-name basis with the juvenile court judge.
The judge eventually shipped Laney to a state training school. He worked hard toward his high school diploma and vowed to get his life together. But after his release he fell back in with his old crowd. Arrested for drinking on a beach at 17 and hauled into adult criminal court, Laney’s old juvenile court judge and a cop who’d picked him up several times intervened. The charge was dropped and his juvenile record wiped clean so he could enlist in the Marines.

Staff Sgt. Laney had a stellar seven-year career that ended when a rocket in Vietnam tore off part of one shoulder and blinded his right eye. After being medically discharged, he joined the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, rising to become Director of the Office of Missing and Exploited Children’s Program. Laney believes mandatory service, perhaps including military service, would help young juvenile offenders find other paths for their lives.


Keynes, Alana. "Ex-Offenders Shine as Success Stories." Youth Today, July/August 1999, p. 51.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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