State urged to rethink youth crime

Locking up juveniles isn't key, study says

June 15, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's lock-'em-up approach to juvenile delinquency actually contributes to youth crime while more successful - and less expensive - programs are being ignored, according to a study released yesterday.

"Less Hype, More Help," which looked at juvenile justice programs across the country, contends that sufficient information exists on how to significantly reduce juvenile crime.

But successful approaches, according to the study, have been largely ignored in favor of get-tough programs that seem designed primarily as public relations schemes to ease fears about crime.

"We really do have some strategies that work to reduce juvenile crime, and we're not using them," said Richard A. Mendel, a researcher from Baltimore who wrote the study. "There's been kind of a brain-stem reaction to crack down on kids."

The study was sponsored by seven youth advocacy and anti-crime organizations.

Nationally, about 70 percent of teens who are locked up for committing crimes are caught doing something illegal again within three years of their release. In Maryland, which has one of the highest rates of juvenile incarcerations in the country, nearly 80 percent of youths released from juvenile jails commit another crime.

Programs that could lower those recidivism rates stress not jail time but prevention, early intervention, substance-abuse counseling and family-focused treatment, according to the study.

Yet, states continue to rely most heavily on punishment, transferring an increasing number of juveniles to adult courts and locking up non-violent offenders in juvenile jails, the study said.

The study recommends:

Providing more treatment for young children with behavioral problems.

Using screening criteria to identify delinquents most likely to commit subsequent offenses and working intensively with them.

Reducing reliance on correctional training schools and other out-of-home placements for youth who are not a danger to public safety.

Coordinating services among agencies - including juvenile justice, education and mental health - that share responsibility for troubled youth.

Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice, said in a statement that he agrees with many of the study's conclusions and that he is implementing many of its recommendations.

He said, for instance, that when juveniles first get into legal trouble, the state will try to determine whether to focus on their education, mental health or substance abuse or other problems.

To a large extent, these issues can be addressed while young offenders are being supervised in the community, as opposed to in a residential facility, said Robinson, who took over the department in December.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the governor's point person on juvenile crime policies, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The study was completed over nine months, mostly by surveying the results of programs around the country. It found, for example, that a "multi-systemic therapy" approach in South Carolina led to 43 percent fewer arrests than conventional juvenile court treatment did.

The approach, which includes pooling educational, substance-abuse and family-centered counseling, cost $4,500 per juvenile, compared with about $27,000 to lock one up for a year.

The study was financed by the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, a child advocacy group in Menlo, Calif., and was released by the American Youth Policy Forum, the National Urban League, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Crime Prevention Council, among other orgaziations.

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