BILL JOHNSON'S JOB is saving kids.
As a deputy juvenile officer for the St. Louis Family Court,
Johnson works with children who have adorned their bodies with
gang-related tattoos, stopped going to school, traded baseball
gloves for guns and, often, committed serious crimes.
Some of the kids live at home with both parents. Most live only
with their mothers. Sometimes, they're mothers who work two jobs to
pay household bills, and sometimes they're mothers who spend their
welfare checks on crack cocaine.
Some of his clients live in places like Annie Malone's
Children's Home, where they're just beginning to believe in
Some are staying temporarily in the Juvenile Detention Center,
awaiting hearings on offenses ranging from shoplifting to burglary
"Most of these kids don't have dreams," Johnson says. "I tell
them that if they don't have dreams, they won't go anywhere."
Missouri's juvenile justice system has long labored quietly in
an atmosphere of penny pinching and political neglect. Only now
that more juveniles are committing violent crimes are politicians
and the public questioning the system's effectiveness.
The consensus among juvenile justice experts is that if
Missouri provided the resources to hire more Bill Johnsons - and
more family therapists, more parenting educators, more specialists
who work to keep families together and more recreation workers - it
might not have to contemplate spending $250 million for new prisons.
Nor would residents be as likely to live in fear of a teen-ager
walking toward them on the street or a car slowing in front of
"Society's going to pay the bill one way or another," said
Raymond J. Grush, chief juvenile officer in St. Charles County. "If
you're not willing to pay the bill when these individuals are young
and impressionable, then you're going to pay it to build more adult
Needed: A Prevention Binge
Everyone agrees that society must be protected from juvenile
offenders who are beyond change. But delinquency experts say that
prevention efforts must begin now to divert the next generation of
youths from committing violent crimes.
Most violent juvenile offenders are between 14 and 17.
Nationally, the population of that age group is at a near 25-year
low - 13.6 million. By 2005, it will number nearly 17 million.
Without violence-prevention efforts, the prospects for curbing
violent crime are dim.
What is needed, delinquency experts say, is earlier
intervention in children's lives. For example:
Developmental testing to detect mental or physical problems
that might predispose them to antisocial behavior.
Family-planning services and help for parents with
Quicker decisions about alternative homes, if a child's parents
are failing him.
Coaching in nonviolent conflict-resolution techniques at
day-care centers and schools.
Alternatives to suspensions and expulsions from public schools,
because youths who aren't attending school are more likely to
Figuring out which young children need help isn't hard, says
Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, an urban-violence expert at Harvard
University's School of Public Health.
"We see them in child-abuse caseloads," she said. "We see them
hovering in the corner while their mothers are being beaten. We
stitch them up in emergency rooms. We suspend them from school.
"We've tried an incarceration binge, and it hasn't worked. But
we haven't tried a prevention binge."
Hit First Offenders Hard
The juvenile courts - now called family courts in urban areas -
also need to be able to offer more help to youths sent to them for
An examination of case histories at the St. Louis Family Court
found that youths sometimes come before the court a half-dozen
times before they are offered any help besides a stern lecture or a
warning letter. …