The State's Outrage
Two days after Willie was sentenced in a trial that had created massive local publicity, Governor Hugh Carey was flying from Manhattan to Rochester to make a campaign appearance. His Republican opponent in that election year was attacking him for being soft on crime and was proposing a tough new law that would permit juveniles to be tried as adults for violent crimes like rape and murder.
Carey, a liberal Democrat, had resisted such a strong reaction. He thought it was too drastic, although he knew there were those in his party who supported it along with Republicans statewide.
That morning, as he read the paper, he spotted the press report on Willie's sentence, which should have been confidential, but obviously had been leaked. One account in the Daily News quoted Herman Spates saying that Willie killed because "he got a kick out of blowing them away." This newspaper also had uncovered the fact that one of Willie's assigned social workers had warned the Division of Youth officials that he was dangerous.
Carey acted at once to this horrifying story. It seemed that he had suddenly realized that some kids were not so easily rehabilitated, as was the primary focus of Family Court, with light or nonexistent sentences. Carey shifted his position and called a mid-air press conference. He was going to support trying violent juveniles as adults, swearing that Willie Bosket would never walk the streets again.
"There was a breakdown of the system," he told reporters, "and it is really on the doorstep of the Division for Youth. The blame is squarely on the shoulders of the department."
The Division of Youth, for their part, felt they had done all that they could. There were no programs or facilities for a child like Willie, who had such an explosive temperament.
A week later, Carey called the legislature back to Albany for a special session, passing the Juvenile Offender Act of 1978. Under its terms, kids as young as thirteen could be tried in adult court for murder and would face the same penalties. This law reversed the tradition of the past 150 years that children were malleable and could be rehabilitated and saved. There was now an attitude that there were truly bad kids and they should be locked away from society. It was too late for Willie to be tried under this law, but it certainly changed things for others his age.
With the passage of this law, New York became the first state to take this step. Yet as juvenile crime statistics worsened around the country, other states followed suite. The press, the public, and prosecutors in New York took to calling it the Willie Bosket law. He got the notoriety he wanted, but not quite in the way he had imagined when he bragged to everyone that he would become a killer just like his dad.