EL PASO, TEXAS — After more than a decade of working with young offenders, Sam Medrano thought he had a good grasp on the root causes of juvenile crime.
But four years ago, the El Paso attorney met two clients who changed his mind. Not only did these gang members admit firing shotguns into a crowded dance club, inadvertently killing a teenage girl, but they seemed genuinely surprised that their gunplay had taken a life.
Since then, Mr. Medrano has seen many youngsters with nonchalant attitudes toward violence. As the juvenile court referee for El Paso County, he's led an effort to do something about it. Starting this month, some young offenders here will be forced to watch an autopsy.
As juvenile crime soars nationwide and state and local budgets tighten, inexpensive and dramatic approaches like this one are gaining favor.
Supporters say they're the only way to reach some juveniles who've been desensitized by years of televised mayhem. Critics say shock is a poor substitute for individual care and attention. Either way, El Paso's program promises to be an important test case.
"A lot of juveniles don't understand what happens when they stab somebody or shoot into a crowd, because they don't stick around to see the aftermath," Medrano says. "These kids see death the way Hollywood portrays it. To them, it's somebody getting shot and then there's a commercial. They don't see it from the coroner's perspective."
According to Medrano, project "Realidad" was inspired by a Los Angeles program that requires underage drunk drivers to view autopsies or photographs of them. Officials there claim only 2 percent of its enrollees reoffend.
Although Medrano says the Los Angeles results are "probably too good to be true," he expects Realidad will have a lasting effect on the kids who are sentenced to participate. In addition to viewing the autopsies, he says, participants will meet with a member of a victim's family and will be required to compose an essay.
The idea, he says, is to target first-time violent offenders who've displayed aggressive tendencies and gang affiliations but who have not been deemed worthy of incarceration by the state. El Paso County currently has few options for reaching these juveniles other than placing them on supervisory probation, electronic monitoring, or under house arrest.
Project Realidad, Medrano says, is a first step toward counteracting the influences that drove these children to crime in the first place.
Although its tactics are unique, Realidad is not unlike the popular "Scared Straight" program founded in New Jersey 20 years ago, which takes young offenders to prisons to meet with inmates. The idea of both programs is to give juveniles a no-holds-barred view of the consequences of their behavior.
Although such programs have been widely copied, there are many critics. "I think it sounds pretty silly," says Steven Marans, assistant professor at the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn. "There's a mistaken belief that children who lack an understanding of consequences can suddenly learn them - that all they need is a wake-up call."
Dr. Marans argues it's "naive" to think an autopsy can reach a hardened gang member. "These are the same kids that have seen friends felled by gunfire. They often know more about the impact of a 9-mm [handgun] than most citizens."
The real problem, Marans says, is that states and localities have been trimming resources for programs aimed at helping troubled kids. When mental heath, special education, and alternative incarceration program budgets are scaled back, he says, there's little officials can do but pursue more graphic, less individualized approaches to treatment.
"A lot of people are searching for a quick and cheap method of intervention," says Peter Greenwood, a juvenile justice specialist at the Rand Corp. in Los Angeles. "Unfortunately, you tend to get what you pay for."
Still, the problem is undeniable. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of all boys living in urban areas are arrested before their 18th birthday. Older juveniles have the highest arrest rates of any age group. And in 1993, the number of murders committed by juveniles jumped 161 percent.
Most politicians are opting for a tougher approach. Last year, Congress passed a juvenile-crime bill that gives states more latitude to try juveniles as adults and provides funds for special juvenile gun and drug courts.
But in the absence of more funding for traditional prevention and treatment programs, says El Paso County Judge Phil Martinez, programs like Realidad are better than nothing. Besides, he says, he only plans to use the program for the most egregious cases - about five youngsters a month.
"I agree this is excessive," Judge Martinez says. "I don't think it's an ideal program..., but I don't know of another way to reach offenders who've caused so much grief."