PUSH PREVENTION, NOT PUNISHMENT, OBSERVERS SAY Series: JUVENILE INJUSTICE Last in a Series
Martha Shirk Of the Post-Dispatch 1994, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
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 themselves.
Some are staying temporarily in the Juvenile Detention Center, awaiting hearings on offenses ranging from shoplifting to burglary to assault.
"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 their homes.
"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 institutions." 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 child-rearing problems.
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 commit crimes.
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 minor crimes.
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. …