Juveniles committing delinquent acts on upswing, judge says

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   According to information reported annually to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, violent crimes committed by juveniles have been showing a steady decrease. Yet on a local level, the number of juveniles committing delinquent acts appears to be on the upswing.
   Between 1994 and 1999 the juvenile arrest rate for Violent Crime Index offenses -- murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault -- fell 36 percent, resulting in the lowest violent crime arrest rate in a decade.
   The FBI estimates:
   * Juveniles were involved in 9 percent of murder arrests, 14 percent of aggravated assault arrests, 33 percent of burglary arrests, 25 percent of robbery arrests, and 24 percent of weapons arrests in 1999.
   * Juvenile murder arrests increased substantially between 1987 and 1993, peaking in 1993 with about 3,800 arrests and then declining about one-third to 1,400 in 1999.
   * Juveniles were involved in 13 percent of all drug abuse violation arrests in 1999, increasing 132 percent from 1990.
   * Juvenile arrests for curfew and loitering violations increased 113 percent between 1990 and 1999, with 28 percent involving juveniles under age 15 and 30 percent involving females.
   * In 1999, 59 percent of arrests for running away from home involved females and 39 percent involved juveniles under age 15.
   * Arrests of juveniles accounted for 12 percent of all violent crimes cleared by arrest in 1999 -- specifically, 6 percent of murders, 12 percent of forcible rapes, 15 percent of robberies, and 12 percent of aggravated assaults.
   According to research on the causes and consequences of juvenile crime conducted by the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research, concentrated urban poverty has a significant role in determining whether adolescents will be involved in criminal activity. Also, environmental factors associated with poverty, such as exposure to violence and high crime rates, influence an individual's decisions well into adult life.
   Criminology research has linked the probability of a child becoming involved in crime with his having grown up in a poor family, and/or in neighborhoods with high crime and poverty rates. Between 1970 and 1990, the number of Americans living in high poverty areas nearly doubled.
   One criminology study tracked data from birth to age 70 for a large group of serious, persistent juvenile offenders. In that study, the researcher found that low levels of parental supervision, erratic, threatening, and harsh discipline, and weak parental attachment were strongly and directly related to delinquency. The researcher also found that delinquency and other forms of antisocial behavior are strongly related to adult crime and drug and alcohol abuse, and that delinquents in the study were far less likely than non-delinquents to finish high school, more likely to be unemployed as adults, more likely to receive welfare, and more likely to experience divorce or separation as adults.
   Carter County Juvenile Court Judge John Walton said the biggest thing he has noticed locally is an increase in juveniles committing series of "delinquent acts" -- crimes which would be criminal offenses were they adults.
   Judge Walton said there also is an increase in the number of repeat offenders.
   "The theory behind the juvenile court system is to do the least restrictive measure, but sometimes that doesn't work. The final alternative is commitment to state custody, the Department of Children's Services." Once juveniles are remanded to state custody the judge no longer has jurisdiction over them, he said.
   According to Walton, the number of female delinquent offenders has stayed about the same locally. "The increase seems to be more with the male population. They steal cars, they commit felony vandalism, they burglarize houses -- serious offenses," he said.
   About two years ago the state was looking at blended sentencing, which would combine some jail time with state custody or strict probation.
   "Probation's something we do in basically every case unless there is a commitment to state custody, and that way they are supervised for a period of time," Walton said.
   Getting out of the juvenile court system largely depends on the individual. "It depends on how well they perform on probation. The quicker they do, the quicker they can be released from probation. If they start having violations of that probation, then that probation would be extended. They also get fines and court costs," Walton said, which ultimately, under state statutes, fall to the parents to pay.
   The second Thursday in the month is "dependent neglect day" in Carter County Juvenile Court. Miscellaneous matters are handled on the first and fourth Thursdays, while the third Thursday is devoted to delinquent acts.
   "The attorney general's office spends all day in juvenile court and prosecutes the delinquent docket, and that's always our heaviest docket. On delinquent day, you're looking at 150 to 250 cases on the docket," Walton said. "Other days the range is approximately 60 to 100 cases a day.
   "Dependent neglect cases take a little longer because it involves custody, parenting plans, a plan of action. The purpose there is to try to reunite the parents with the child," he said. "The majority of dependent neglect cases we have come from single-parent families."
   Also, according to the judge, juvenile offenders appear to be getting younger and younger. "Sometimes I can't even see the little fellows in front of my bench. I have to make them step back so I can see them."
   Though it doesn't happen often in Carter County, juveniles can be transferred to Criminal Court and tried as adults based on the seriousness of the crime committed.
   "It's discretionary on the attorney general's part whether or not to file a motion for transfer. We've had maybe two or three cases," Walton said.
   Most local court systems are designed to cope with truancy and delinquency problems, not repeat juvenile offenders. Also, penalties are inadequate for dealing with some of today's more violent and dangerous juveniles.
   "I'll see them go through the juvenile system and then bam! They're in Sessions Court. I say, 'Oh, well, you graduated real quick,' " Walton said.
   The judge does not believe the situation is unique to Carter County, however. "I think it's a nationwide problem. I think there's a lack of parental control over the children. They lack that parental guidance. I think it's very important for parents to know where their children are at all times," Walton said.