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A changing society: our responsibility for youthful offenders cannot begin once a juvenile enters the criminal justice system. (Editorial).

Growing up in Ponca City, Okla., I did not confront many of the issues that today's youths face. I was not exposed to drugs such as GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) and methamphetamines as today's youths are. I was not exposed to the influence of gangs. And I did not see celebrities from the world of sports being accused of violent crimes or of using drugs, including steroids. It is safe to say that the world has changed.

Juveniles in the United States today live in a world much different from that of my generation. Problems experienced by children now are the products of multiple and sometimes complex sources. Fewer children are raised in two-parent homes. And although the proportion of juveniles living in poverty has recently declined, they still are far more likely to live in poverty today than 20 years ago. Drug and alcohol use is more common and gang involvement has increased.

In 1998, the most recent year statistics are available, more than 81 percent of high school seniors reported trying alcohol and more than half reported using alcohol within the past 30 days. Also in 1998, 54 percent of all seniors said they had at least tried illicit drugs, with marijuana being the most commonly used illicit drug by far.

While sell-reported drug and alcohol use among juveniles has remained stable or only increased slightly during the 1990s, the juvenile arrest rate for drug abuse violations nearly doubled between 1992 and 1996. This reflects a greater effort by law enforcement, as well as by the community, to crack down on illegal drug and alcohol use by our nation's youths.

As with the adult population, a large percentage of juveniles who come into contact with the criminal justice system do so because of their involvement with drugs and alcohol. The proportion of high school seniors who reported breaking the law (for something other than using alcohol or drugs) was greater among drug users than nonusers.

More juveniles come into contact with the nation's criminal justice system today than at any time in our nation's history. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, law enforcement agencies in the United States made 2.8 million arrests of individuals younger than 18 in 1997. Between 1987 and 1994, the female juvenile violent crime arrest rate more than doubled, while the male rate increased by two-thirds. These arrests led to more than 5,600 individuals younger than 18--nearly 2 percent of all new court commitments--being sent to the nation's adult prison systems.

Given the additional issues that youthful offenders present, the challenges to our profession are daunting. We can ensure that youthful offenders have access to resources that will help prevent them from returning to lives of crime following their release from correctional institutions. We must make a greater effort to improve the quality of our rehabilitation, job training and re-entry initiatives. The challenges associated with this are great. And meeting them is only part of our obligation as criminal justice professionals.

As a society, we cannot legislate morality. We cannot force our nation's youths to live alcohol-, drug- and crime-free lives. As such, there will always be juvenile crime, and some of it will require youths to be incarcerated. However, our responsibility for youthful offenders cannot begin once a juvenile enters the criminal justice system. It must begin in the community, even before a youth comes into contact with the criminal justice system. Society must work to improve the quality of and access to after-school programs, taking children off the streets during the times of day when the majority of crimes committed by youthful offenders occur. We can ensure that these programs provide information about the dangers of alcohol and drug use; after all, studies show that information on the dangers of drugs and alcohol have a significant impact on use among youths. Our goal cannot simply be returning youthful offenders to society, but it must also include helping to ensure that there are not others to take their p lace within our facilities. It's a daunting challenge, one that most would not believe is our responsibility. But I believe that we have a role to play, and I refuse to believe that the goal of eliminating juvenile crime is out of our reach.
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Title Annotation:increase in drug and alcohol use among high school students
Author:Gondles, James A., Jr.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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