Programming, Staffing and Managing the Violent Juvenile Offender

By Alarcon, Frank | Corrections Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Programming, Staffing and Managing the Violent Juvenile Offender


Alarcon, Frank, Corrections Today


March 7, 2001 -- Caucasian eighth-grader Elizabeth Catherine Bush of Williamsport, Pa., was arrested and held in custody after allegedly shooting her classmate in the shoulder.

March 13, 2001 -- At the request of Florida's Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice agreed to accept and place 14-year-old African-American Lionel Tate in a maximum-security juvenile facility. Tate was sentenced to life Imprisonment for the murder of a 6-year-old girl.

March 26, 2001 -- A judge postponed the arraignment of 15-year-old Caucasian Charles "Andy" Williams, charged with killing two students and injuring 13 others in a suburban San Diego high school, to give his attorneys time to challenge a California law requiring youths to be tried as adults.

From California, to a small town in Pennsylvania, to Florida, the media is obsessed with the seemingly mindless, heartless and emotionless violent acts of juveniles -- male or female, white or black -- who, one would surmise, at a minimum, lack spiritual guidance and respect for human life. A review of the media coverage of these juveniles and violent events reveals that all reports and stories focus on one or more of the following:

* Why some children snap and who is to blame;

* Should youths who commit violent crimes be tried and sentenced as adults?;

* The prevalence of ethnic minority children in the criminal justice system; and

* The long-lasting effect violent acts have on victims.

Those issues certainly are important and debates may improve policies or systemwide developments. However, there are few discussions about another important consequence of violent juvenile crime and sentencing -- how to manage violent juvenile offenders once they have been committed or sentenced to a residential or correctional facility.

Growing Concern

Discussions about the issues corrections professionals face in juvenile or adult systems typically are absent from media reports. Journalists rarely demonstrate an interest in or an understanding of the challenges corrections personnel deal with every day. Regardless of the correctional setting, whether it is a juvenile correctional facility or an adult prison that houses young violent offenders, correctional staff, administrators and policy-makers nationwide struggle to find ways to best manage this difficult population.

From 1986 to 1995, violent personal offenses handled by U.S. juvenile courts increased 98 percent, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The good news is that most states have been experiencing a decline in such offenses in recent years. The bad news is that the numbers still are significantly higher than earlier decades, and the number of juvenile arrests for violent index crimes still is 43 percent above 1986 figures. The Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a national survey last year of 15,000 teens. The study found that one out of five high school boys carried a weapon to school, one out of three high school students are afraid at school, 27 percent of middle school students and 31 percent of high school students say they think it is OK to hit or threaten someone, and 70 percent have hit someone at least once in the past year. These statistics, along with the fact that the at-risk youth population is expected to continue to increase this decade, prove it is essential to address management strategies for violent juvenile offenders.

Assessments

A review of existing literature suggests there is not one significant cause for violent juvenile offenders and that until someone discovers a magic pill, any attempt to treat such offenders should be multidimensional and individualized to increase the potential for success, however it may be measured. Dr. Hans Steiner, professor of child psychiatry and child development at Stanford University Medical Center, in Palo Alto, Calif.

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