Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family Court Focus: Troubled Teens Load of Cases before a Rhode Island Judge Typifies Soaring, Often Violent Youth Crime Rate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Family Court Focus: Troubled Teens Load of Cases before a Rhode Island Judge Typifies Soaring, Often Violent Youth Crime Rate

Article excerpt

Call it "heartbreak court." Bewildered and scared, the teens come and go, each standing before Chief Family Court Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah for a few moments of hard truth in this small room. A court stenographer silently records every word. An armed bailiff keeps an eye on any movement.

Facing the judge at the end of a table, each boy or girl appears young and fragile. But they have used guns and knifes, fought other teens, sold cocaine, burglarized homes, stolen cars, or confessed to being an alcoholic. Usually reporters are not allowed into juvenile courts to see the proceedings, but this reporter was granted special permission.

"Do you know what's happening?" the judge asks each teen in the session. Quick discussions with a lawyer, public defender, or family member have ended. The judge wants a response from the teen.

Most of them answer quietly or mumble, "Yes."

"Tell me what's happening," the judge insists, hoping to hear some comprehension, some signs of life from these saddened children who are struggling to know where they belong in a world turned dissonant to them.

The broader answer to "what is happening" in this family court, or any juvenile court across the United States, is buried behind numbing statistics. As adult crime has edged downward in the US, crime among teens, particularly violent crime, has soared.

Between 1985 and 1993, according to the US Justice Department, the number of murders committed by youths under 17 increased 165 percent.

More teen victims

The Justice Department also estimates that nearly a million young people from 12 to 19 years old are raped, robbed, or assaulted each year, most often by their peers.

Over the last decade, admissions to juvenile detention facilities nationwide have increased by 30 percent to 500,000 annually. As average lengths of stays have increased, the facilities have become overcrowded.

On any given day, according to the Children's Defense Fund, 5,314 children in the US are arrested for all kinds of offenses.

"In general we are seeing more serious offenses now," says Judge Jeremiah, one of 11 juvenile and family judges here. "Our lockup facility can handle about 145 {teens}, and the place is filled. We are a statutory court here, required to be part of the rehabilitation of youngsters, and that's why I put many of them on probation with suspended sentences, and in some cases restitution or community service."

For Micheline Lombardi, a probation counselor with the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families in Pawtucket, the increase in youth crime has meant nearly a doubling of her case load.

"I used to have around 36 cases at any one time," she says. "Now I have 65 to 70 cases, and sometimes I don't remember their names. But I can tell you that young girls are becoming more violent. It used to be they were truants or disobedient; now they are assaulting each other."

Standing before Jeremiah, a small 18-year-old girl wearing a blue, brimless cap, white blouse, and baggy denim pants, stands motionless while her case is discussed by the judge, a public defender, and an assistant attorney general. No adult relative appears with her.

Naomi (not her real name) is charged with "assault with attempt to murder" as a result of a fight with another girl who has a baby allegedly fathered by the same teen who fathered Naomi's child.

There was a fight at school, witnessed by others. Naomi left the school, returned with a loaded gun, and chased the girl, saying, "Do you want to live? …

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