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Breaking the cycle of juvenile crime.

The legal community can help implement a comprehensive strategy to reduce juvenile delinquency.

Just as the Chinese symbol for crisis represents both danger and opportunity, so too does the problem of youth violence. Levels of juvenile crime and violence dramatically increased in the United States between 1985 and 1993. Since 1993, these levels have declined. Still, the rates of juvenile offending and victimization are of crisis proportion. The crisis encompasses not only young people and public safety but also the failure and neglect of families, schools, communities, and social systems for which adults are responsible.

After decades of research on the causes and correlates of juvenile delinquency, we now have the means to address this problem. Tested and proven programs and strategies are available to successfully attack the multiple risk factors for delinquency. The trick now is to engage trained professionals, forge public will, and garner the leadership and resources to fully implement these programs.

Moving from individual program accomplishments such as mentoring, home visits by nurses, and early intervention programs to broad-based system reform will ensure the long-term health and safety of our communities.

The problem of youth violence in this country is serious, but it should be kept in perspective. Pundits talk about a generation of juvenile superpredators, but this characterization is not true. Consider the following facts.

* In 1996, less than one-half of 1 percent of juveniles age 10 to 17 were arrested for a violent crime in the United States.(1)

* A core group of about 6 to 8 percent of juvenile offenders is responsible for most serious and violent juvenile crime in our communities.(2) Violent crime includes murder, negligent manslaughter, kidnaping, violent sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault. Serious crime includes burglary, serious larceny, motor vehicle theft, arson, weapons offenses, and drug trafficking.

* Juvenile gang involvement lasts an average of one year, not a lifetime.(3)

* In the last three years, juvenile arrests for murder have dropped 31 percent, and arrests for weapons law violations have dropped 21 percent.(4)

While the number of juvenile offenses remains too high, most juveniles are good citizens, and many are struggling to do well in situations that would test even the most resilient adults. For instance, more than 2 million cases of child abuse and neglect are reported each year.(5)

Solutions to youth crime

Many factors in the communities, families, schools, peer groups, or personal characteristics of today's youth may have contributed to the decrease in juvenile crime. Research from the fields of public health, criminology, sociology, and psychology has demonstrated that reducing risk factors for delinquency and introducing protective factors are effective antidotes to youth crime.

Key risk factors include being a victim of abuse and neglect, tailing in school, associating with delinquent peers, and living in communities where there is easy access to guns and drugs. Protective factors include having caring and responsible adult role models, academic support, and access to positive activities, such as after-school programs that provide opportunities for personal development, recreation, and cultural enrichment.

When children grow up in functional families with positive peers and influences and in communities that are free of guns, gangs, and drugs, they are significantly less likely to become delinquent.(6)

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), established in 1974 by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act,(7) funds the Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency. Over the last 10 years, this research has examined thousands of youths in three locations to develop and test causal models for chronic violent offending. The program has also examined the interrelationships among teenage fatherhood, early sexual activity, victimization, gang involvement, drug selling, and gun ownership and use.

In Rochester, New York, for example, research demonstrated that the offense rate of high-risk middle school students dropped by over 50 percent when youths had an average of nine or more protective factors in their lives instead of six or fewer.(8)

An OJJDP-sponsored study by 22 top U.S. researchers found that the first signs of problem behavior often occur as early as age 7, while the first serious or violent offense generally is not recorded until about age 14.(9) Accordingly, when juveniles exhibit precursor behaviors such as truancy, bullying, and minor delinquent offenses, there are seven years of opportunity to prevent future serious and violent offending--and there is substantial knowledge to guide us in taking action.

Programs and strategies employed at each developmental stage of a child's life can reduce the likelihood of delinquency. Through effective prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, we can interrupt a youth's path toward destructive behavior.

For example, a parent-training and home-visitation program in Elmira, New York, showed positive results in the early prevention of both child abuse and delinquency. Using qualified nurses, the program offered intensive training, guidance, and counseling to pregnant women and new mothers.

Over 15 years, there were 80 percent fewer instances of child abuse by the participating mothers. Moreover, the 15-year-old children of the participating mothers had half as many arrests as those born to mothers not in the program.(10)

Similarly, research in Charleston, South Carolina, engaged delinquent youths in multisystemic therapy, an integrated, family-based treatment for adolescents who demonstrate serious antisocial behavior. The program addressed problems in the youths' families, communities, and schools and with their peers. Even four years after completing the program, the youths' re-arrest rates were half that of comparable youths receiving traditional services.(11)

Strategy and action plan

Improving the development of our children requires finding out which efforts are likely to pay off and why, and then investing wisely in those strategies. The juvenile justice system--from the dependency and delinquency courts to social service systems, correctional facilities, probation, and aftercare (post-release supervision and treatment services)--must implement a comprehensive, research-based strategy.

A concerted effort on the part of federal, state, and local governments, in partnership with private organizations and community agencies, will ensure that available resources are best used; decrease juvenile crime, violence, and victimization; and increase community safety.

At the federal level, the OJJDP is the agency responsible for providing a coordinated approach to preventing and controlling juvenile crime and improving the juvenile justice system. The agency administers a budget of over $500 million, which is used to support research on juvenile crime; provide funding to state and local governments; offer training and technical assistance; and disseminate information to practitioners, the general public, and policy makers.

The OJJDP aims to identify and promote programs that prevent or reduce juvenile offending, both criminal and noncriminal; to intervene when delinquent or status offending first occurs; and to reduce future offending by improving the justice system's response.

OJJDP programs and strategies are designed to

* strengthen families and prevent child maltreatment (for example, by providing nurse home visitation and community-and school-based parenting education);

* improve the responsiveness of child protective services, the dependency court, and the foster care system (for example, by using court-appointed special advocates and child advocacy centers);

* ensure that at-risk youth have the skills (education, cultural awareness, conflict resolution, drug refusal, gang resistance), opportunities (after-school and school-based activities and employment), and recognition (from mentors, school officials, parents, and other positive role models) that they need to develop into healthy adults;

* assess the risks and needs of juveniles when they first enter the system and provide graduated sanctions and programs that address the issues identified;

* respond effectively to gun violence, juvenile gangs, and serious and violent offending (for example, through police/probation partnerships, placement in juvenile residential facilities, and criminal prosecution for juveniles beyond the reach of the juvenile justice system); and

* reintegrate offenders into the community through a strong system of aftercare, including monitoring the offender's behavior in the community and supplying ongoing mental health, substance abuse, or other treatment.(12)

Individuals from a wide variety of disciplines are following the OJJDP's strategy. Lawyers--in particular, litigators, legislators, and policy makers--play a significant role in implementing a comprehensive strategy, advocating for effective practices, and acting as agents for change.

Dependency court reform

Research has shown reducing child abuse and neglect will interrupt the cycle of juvenile violence. Social and protective service providers, along with child advocates, have long argued for strengthening the dependency court system, and the full force of the legal profession must now be applied to this effort.

Law schools should train students in family and dependency court practice so that a new generation of lawyers can protect the rights and serve the legal needs of abused and neglected children.

Representing children's interests produces both personal satisfaction and social benefits. Lawyers can join the guardian ad litem movement, provide pro bono and court-appointed representation for abused and neglected children, and advocate for the services and safe, permanent homes that these children need.

Nationwide, the OJJDP and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have set up model dependency courts to demonstrate these practices. The OJJDP's Safe Kids/Safe Streets program recently started in Ohio and Alabama is combining criminal and dependency court processes into a coordinated, community-based system to better serve the interests of children, families, and the community.

The initiative includes better coordination between law enforcement and protective service investigators, joint interviewing of child witnesses, and more effective communication between the family and criminal court systems. An improved management information system will assist the different disciplines that work within these areas of court practice.

Improving services

As the juvenile court system approaches its 100th anniversary, some critics have used the commemoration to label the system a failure. However, the court system has successfully served most of its clients even as it struggled with inadequate resources and was branded second rate by many judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.

Although there are juvenile court heroes in the legal community who are working to ensure the strength of the system, there are far too few. Because we know the criminal career often begins with early delinquent conduct, the juvenile justice system should have the highest priority.

Priority status will foster adequate risk and needs assessments for all offenders, more in-depth analysis of legal competency issues, and greater attention to confinement conditions and mental health and civil rights protections for offenders.

Another result of this priority status will be greater support for effective efforts, for example:

* restitution programs that result in lower recidivism rates than for juveniles placed on probation alone;

* the Paint Creek Youth Center in Ohio, which provides a highly structured environment, a low client-staff ratio, comprehensive services, aftercare, job training, and work experience; and

* the Arlington County Juvenile Sex Offender Program in Virginia, a comprehensive treatment approach involving the adolescent offender, the offender's family, and community systems that reduces recidivism and the likelihood that the youth's behavior will escalate into more serious or violent sexual deviance.

The American Bar Association, the Youth Law Center, and the Juvenile Law Center conducted a literature review as well as an extensive survey of public defender offices, court-appointed lawyers, and law school clinics. The resulting report documented the need for dramatic improvement in legal services for juvenile offenders.(13)

In response, the OJJDP is funding a Juvenile Defender Center to provide national training and technical assistance and fulfill many of the ABA's recommendations.

Role of criminal court

Most states have passed new legislation permitting, expanding, or requiring the transfer of alleged juvenile offenders to criminal court under specified circumstances. Solid research on the consequences of this practice will enable legislatures to develop policies to improve judicial and prosecutorial waiver to the criminal court of juvenile cases and transfer decisions. Three OJJDP studies will compare offenders retained in the juvenile justice system with those transferred to criminal courts.

Creative approaches that provide for "blended" or "alternative" sentencing options have been adopted in several states. Minnesota, for example, has created a separate offender status ("extended jurisdiction juvenile") that provides some serious and violent juvenile offenders with a last chance at rehabilitation. If they violate the terms of a delinquency sentence, they will receive a criminal sentence.

Texas and other states are using extended jurisdiction provisions to ensure offenders are supervised by the justice system past age 21. Some states have lowered the age at which jurisdiction can be transferred to the criminal court but have made this provision optional rather than mandatory, depending on the circumstances of the case and history of the offender.(14)

There are effective solutions to the crisis of youth crime and violence, and these solutions give attorneys the opportunity to improve the lives of young people and secure the safety of our communities.

But the crisis also presents a danger in addition to the toll youth violence takes on individuals and the community. There is the danger that key leaders may seek only "quick fix" solutions and that the recent downturn in juvenile arrests will be seen as a victory rather than an occasion to sustain and increase successful efforts.

To offset these dangers, lawyers must advocate fully for prevention, intervention, and a balanced response to juvenile offending. These measures will help ensure justice for juveniles and safety for the nation's communities.


(1.) Howard N. Snyder, Juvenile Arrests 1996, JUV. JUST. BULL., Nov. 1997, at 4.



(4.) Snyder, supra note 1, at 1.

(5.) SNYDER ET AL., supra note 2, at 9.


(7.) 42 U.S.C. [subsections] 5601-5676 (1994).


(9.) Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders, JUV. JUST BULL., May 1998, at 2.

(10.) David Olds et al., Prenatal and Early Childhood Nurse Home Visitation, JUV. JUST. BULL. (forthcoming).

(11.) Scott W. Henggeler, Treating Serious Antisocial Behavior in Youth: The MST Approach, JUV JUST. BULL., May 1997, at 1,6.

(12.) JOHN J. WILSON & JAMES C. HOWELL, COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGY FOR SERIOUS, VIOLENT, AND CHRONIC JUVENILE OFFENDERS (1993); Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention, Guide for Implementing the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders, JUV. JUST. BULL., June 1995, at 1; OFFICE OF JUVENILE JUSTICE & DELINQUENCY PREVENTION, COMBATING VIOLENCE AND DELINQUENCY: THE NATIONAL JUVENILE JUSTICE ACTION PLAN (1996).



Shay Bilchik is administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice.
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Author:Bilchik, Shay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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