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Just how should we deal with youth crime?

The nation’s overall crime rate may have been decreasing steadily during most of this decade, but the number of crimes committed by juveniles has skyrocketed, and it was against this backdrop that many jurisdictions adopted new, tougher-than-ever attitudes toward young criminals, including the prosecution of ever-younger juvenile offenders as adults.

The alarming trend may be expected to continue, with some experts warning of an explosion of violent juvenile crime over the next decade.

Granted, 1996 brought a glimmer of good news amid the gloom, with the FBI reporting that juvenile arrests for homicide dipped 22.8 percent in 1994, after having reached an all-time high the year before. Attorney General Janet Reno attributed the decline to community-based strategies adopted by law enforcement, curfews and prevention programs aimed at children and parents.

But those tidings were tempered by the predictions of some crime demographics experts that the lull is only temporary. The U.S. population of teen-agers, they point out, is expected to increase by 1 percent for each of the next 15 years, from the current 27 million to 39 million in 2010.

Law enforcement officials seem prepared to heed the warning, calling for drastic steps to head off the expected surge in juvenile crime. A report released by the International Association of Chiefs of Police said law enforcement must take a primary role in combating youth crime, including forming partnerships with their governments, private citizens and businesses, and convening “summits” to discuss goals and strategies to deal with the problem.

Among the proposals outlined in “Youth Violence in America: Recommendations from the IACP Summit,” which were drawn from a two-day meeting convened in April by the IACP, were: augmenting or redirecting resources to increase the number of youth service, school resource, anti-drug and gang programs;  increasing Federal support to police agencies for youth violence-reduction programs and technology; increasing the number of community policing officers, and expanding the role of school resource officers.

Another report, based on a survey of over 500 police chiefs, found 92 percent agreeing with the view that the United States could sharply reduce crime by “fully funding Head Start for infants and toddlers, preventing child abuse, providing parenting training for high-risk families, improving schools and providing after-school programs and mentoring.” Almost 90 percent of those surveyed by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a coalition of crime victims, prosecutors and police officials, agreed that failure to do so will result in higher crime and welfare costs, and said increasing investment in such programs was more effective than hiring more police or trying juveniles criminals as adults.

However, such views were not enough to turn back the tide of politically popular “get-tough” measures adopted in several states in response to rising juvenile crime. In Michigan, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping and arson were added to the list of crimes for which juveniles can be tried and sentenced as adults. Virginia passed legislation that requires youths charged with murder and rape to be tried as adults and opens juvenile courts and records to the public. The legislation also gives judges the authority to suspend adult sentences so that minors could be sent to juvenile facilities, but prison terms could still be imposed if their behavior has not improved.

Yet even as the trend to legislate harsher punishments continues, a new study by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida found that such approaches may not be effective in deterring future criminal acts by young people. The study determined that juveniles tried as adults in Florida committed new and sometimes more serious crimes at a higher rate than those who were handled in juvenile courts. Such tactics, the study suggested may have “actually aggravated short-term recidivism.”

Curfew ordinances, which have been growing in popularity for several years, lost none of their appeal in 1996, and even made their way into the Presidential campaign, with both President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole endorsing the measures. Still, as with get-tough sanctions, the jury remains out on the effectiveness of juvenile curfews.

A curfew imposed in New Orleans last year is said to have contributed to a double-digit decline in overall youth crime in that city. On the other hand, officials of the Metro-Dade County Police Department in Florida say it is too early to tell whether the curfew in place there since November 1995 has had an effect. Those in surrounding towns say they’ve noticed an impact: The Dade County curfew, they claim, has led to a spillover of juvenile crimes committed by youths who congregate in outlying communities to avoid the curfew.

Many of the new law enforcement strategies against youth crime continue to place a particular emphasis on youth gangs, which, according to the Justice Department’s first-ever gang survey, are causing worsening problems in 48 percent of the communities polled.

Police in Albuquerque, N.M., began a 30-day strategy of saturation patrols in gang-plagued neighborhoods in February, in which police stopped teen-agers loitering on streets and checked them for gang tattoos, drugs and weapons. Those caught with the contraband wound up in jail; information gleaned from the contacts was entered into the department’s gang data base. Other stepped-up efforts against youth gangs were announced in Alexandria, Va., Omaha, Neb., and Tulsa, Okla., among other places.

In Los Angeles, which has long battled an entrenched gang problem, officials announced a plan to get more bang for their anti-gang bucks by consolidating the city’s efforts into a four-year, multimillion-dollar pilot program that will target at-risk middle-school students and will require for the first time that community-based programs show progress in order to be eligible for continued funding. The program, called “L.A. Bridges,” also requires competitive bidding for groups seeking city funds to fight gang problems, and includes a police component focusing on prevention programs.

The ease with which youths gain access to firearms has long been a concern for law enforcement. In July, police chiefs and prosecutors from 17 major cities voluntarily pledged to provide information on every gun they seize, as part of a program to compile a Federal computer data base on the illegal sale of firearms to youths. Project LEAD, which will be overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is an outgrowth of a pilot effort in Boston to keeps guns out of the hands of youth. Officials there say it is a prime reason why no Boston juveniles have been killed by firearms this year.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]