Prevention and Teamwork Key to Fighting Juvenile Crime

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Editor's Note: The following is an edited version of the Opening Session keynote address delivered by Shay Bilchik, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, on Jan. 27, 1997. For a complete copy of his speech, please contact Jennifer Harry at (301) 918-1891.

This morning, I hope to address how our work to improve detention in corrections can fit within a comprehensive plan to reduce youth crime and violence. And more particularly, I'll also talk about how we can reduce juvenile delinquency and violence by moving forward together -- criminal and juvenile justice practitioners, educators, mental health providers and others of cross disciplines -- along with policy and lawmakers in talking about the most critical issues that need to be addressed.

When I think about all of these work groups, it reminds me of a chapter of a book by Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. In this book, he writes in one chapter about his childhood recollections of playing "Hide and Seek." He recalls the kid in the neighborhood who hid so well that no one could find him, and after a while, the other kids gave up and stopped looking for him. This would always end in a fight. The kid who was still hiding would get angry. "They should have kept looking for me," he'd think. And the other kids would say: "You don't know how to play the game. You're supposed to eventually come out when we can't find you."

This is how we've been operating our justice system -- playing an adult version of "Hide and Seek." For too many years, we've been hiding from each other in our individual work and not allowing ourselves to be found, to enrich each other's efforts. We need to work closely together in dealing with these issues.

The first of these issues is what I term the predator issue. Statistics highlight that, except for a decrease in 1995, the problem of juvenile violence and juvenile crime has increased dramatically over the past 10 years, Statistics on youth violence and media portrayals of the incidents they represent have produced a tremendous climate of fear in our nation and a super-predator mentality that is changing the way policies are made and the way people live.

I think it's time for us to shift how we are framing the problem of juvenile violence. While it is true that we need to be vigilant in ensuring our immediate safety through our law enforcement and correctional efforts, it is also true that if we are to find long-lasting solutions, we must explore the predator theme from a different vantage point.

As you know and as the public needs to know, only about one-half of 1 percent of young people ages 10 to 17 this year will be arrested for crimes. Of these juveniles, most are committing nonviolent and less serious offenses. Approximately 83 percent of all persons arrested for murder in this country last year were adults, not juveniles. This is the context in which we should be conducting our examination of the changing nature of juvenile crime and implementing our policies regarding our overall juvenile justice efforts. While violent behavior is becoming more violent, the overall picture is not as bleak as some headlines make it out to be. Young people are right to be indignant over the labeling of their generation as the super-predator generation.

I suggest we turn this predator issue on its head and ask why these children are getting involved in crime in the first place. Why are they joining gangs? Why are they carrying and using guns? Ten juveniles per day in this country are murdered, with most murdered children below the age of six being killed by a family member and beaten to death. There are over 1 million confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in this country each year compared to under 150,000 cases of violent offenses committed by juveniles, a nearly 7 to 1 ratio. Although improving, the United States has the highest rate of children and adolescents living in families with incomes below the poverty level in the industrial world. …