The changing nature of juvenile offenders

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   A May 1998 report prepared from a workshop held by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention examined the changing nature of juvenile offenders. Sandra S. Stone, Ph.D., author of the report, raised concerns about the growing juvenile crime rate in light of a projected 30-percent increase in the number of 15- to 16-year-olds by 2010.
   According to Stone, increases in juvenile crime since the mid-1980's reflect several trends: shifts in the economy, decline in the extended family and increase in single parenthood, access to more lethal weapons, and the growing role of gangs. Population growth, increased immigration, broader cultural diversity, welfare reform which could lead to more childhood poverty, more transfers from juvenile to criminal courts, and soaring prison costs are likely to affect juvenile crime in the future.
   Based on the report, 26 percent of American children live below the poverty line, while welfare reforms are expected to add another million.
   Findings from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention's "Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency" showed: "... for minor delinquency, offending begins around age 7, peaks at ages 9 to 13, rises steadily to age 17 for boys and 15 for girls, and then drops. "Nonviolent serious delinquency also begins around age 7 and peaks at age 9. For boys, it peaks again around age 12 and continues rising through age 19. For girls, it peaks again from ages 13 to 15, then declines.
   "Violent offending for boys begins around age 7, then increases steadily from ages 8 to 19. For girls, violent offending peaks around age 13, then declines. While boys are more apt to commit delinquent acts than girls, the number of delinquent girls is increasing at a faster rate."
   The study says the earlier youth begin to engage in delinquent behavior, the more likely they are to become chronic offenders, with the more serious ones likely to have other problems associated with drugs, mental health, and school, and more likely to have been victimized earlier in life.
   The study recommended a "multifaceted approach" to help serious juvenile offenders, including a home-based program for treating serious offenders with clinical problems. The program is based on family preservation and the belief that the most effective and ethical route to helping juveniles is through helping their families. It addresses all areas of the offender's life and serves the needs of families in which a child is in imminent danger of out-of-home placement.
   Mike Wood, juvenile services officer for Carter County, says he is seeing an increase in dependent neglect cases, while delinquent and unruly cases remain about the same. In dependent neglect cases, someone files a petition alleging a child is not being provided for properly, is not supervised properly, is without proper sustenance or decent housing, and is in endangerment in an unsafe environment.
   With repeat offenders, Wood said, "To tell you the truth, the first time one is before the court, how the parents handle themselves, how they express things ... I can pretty much tell you if they're going to come sneaking back at a later date.
   "We've got a lot of parents that think they can drop their kid off down here and we'll be the parent. But that's one of the first things that I point out to a parent that wants to come in and file an ungovernable/unruly (petition): 'We're not in the parenting field and it's not cost-free.'
   "I'm trying to point out to them that they're supposed to be doing their duty first. They also come down here: 'Will you talk with my child?' I won't talk with a child unless a petition has been filed or it's before this court. I'm not the baby-sitter. I'm not here to scare them. I'll point out what the law of the land is, so to speak, and we'll go from there," he said.
   There are many variables to consider related to the cause of increasing juvenile crime. "I'd say the stress is on the entire family. There's no certain one thing," Wood said.
   In administering justice, Juvenile Court tries to start out with least restrictive measure for offenders "and the child works its way further into the system or works its way out of the system," Wood said. "When there's an accumulation of felony-type offenses, they're going to find themselves leaving home for awhile."
   The ratio of male to female offenders is about 50/50 now, with females more likely to become involved in shoplifting, burglary, breaking and entering, Wood said.
   He sees a great need for more programs with DCS because currently, "They're depending on a lot of private contracts to service the kids."
   In the meantime, he said, Gov. Don Sundquist "talks tough out of one side of his mouth to get tough on juveniles, and the other side, the funding gets cut. Well, if you don't have the dollars, you can't have the programs."
   Locally, there is an intensified focus program to help juveniles resolve the duties of being a young citizen by covering such material as how to deal with peer pressure and make proper decisions.
   "They try to point out to them that the duty of a citizen, first off, is to obey the rules. The second one is to be an achiever. And it's definitely going to take the entire skill -- as broad as it is -- of self-discipline. They put the child on notice how they go about doing that."
   There also is a need for more manpower. "In Juvenile Court, I've got one assistant," Wood said. She classifies local intensified probation while Wood handles long-range monitoring and reporting. With intensified probation, the officer visits the school, visits the home, and has more contact with the juvenile. From there, the program accelerates to more intensified home-based probation, Comprehensive Community Services, and Department of Children's Services.
   A child can go through several levels of probation locally before being committed to state custody and having to leave home, Wood said.
   Locally, the judicial system could benefit from having a full-time juvenile court judge, Wood believes.
   "There's something that a lot of people don't understand: The majority of Tennessee juvenile court judges are part-time. Their main focus is sessions court." A full-time judge would help move the cases along, Wood believes.
   "That's the thing about juveniles: Juveniles outgrow. Eventually, they turn adulthood, and there's no continuance between juveniles and adulthood in this system," he said.
   "The child eventually is going to be 18 and moving on into the world and if he's still got certain things that have got to be taken care of here, what are you going to do? If they aren't in full compliance with the order of the court, I'm not going to close the case," Wood said.