Orrick, S. (ed.). (1996, August-September). Juvenile crime: 1996-97 Policy debate topic. Congressional Digest, 75, pp. 8-9.
Juvenile crime is increasing. Consequently, youth leaders will be dealing more often with youth who have been or are involved in criminal activity. Therefore, it is necessary for youth leaders to know what teenagers experience, and do anything possible to help youth avoid criminal activity. It is important to know what activities youth are involved in and what can be done to direct youth toward productive activities.
THE HISTORY OF GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT
In the past twenty years, since the institution of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974, the number of criminal acts among teenagers has risen, and the nature of the crimes has become more serious. Yet, since this Act came into existence, there have been improvements in the areas targeted by the Act. But the needs of the juvenile justice system have changed; thus, the goals of the department and legislation within the system need to change. According to findings submitted to the Senate on September 10, 1996,
20 years ago, less than half of our nation’s cities reported gang activity, while a generation later, reasonable estimates indicate that there are now more than 500,000 gang members in more than 16,000 gangs on the streets of our cities, and there were more than 580,000 gang crimes in 1993.
These numbers continue to rise as the population of teenagers in the country increases and the number of two-parent households decreases. The increase in gang activity seems to correlate with the increase of teenage crime; therefore, to clamp teen crime, new laws are being passed, more facilities are being built to house offenders, and more programs are being added to state and local systems. Still, it is argued by many that government efforts (local, state, and federal) are not working. Governments have been cutting funds which support programs and institutions for youth, such as community recreation centers, after-school care, and neighborhood movie houses. However, it is during the time that youth would normally participate in these programs that they are now engaging in crime. According to the article, " ‘The prime time for juvenile crime is during the after-school hours—from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m_.’ " Youth need productive activities during these very hours, yet such programs are being eliminated by many governments. Also, people need to realize that there are no easy answers for youth crime issues. Effective solutions are strategic and gradual; long-term results will most likely be seen in the next generation. Governments and communities must identify and protect youth from risky factors that might lead them into violent and delinquent behaviors. The federal government and other organizations have conducted research studies, but communities also need to actively survey their own problems.
In the fall of 1994, the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention met to create a plan to reduce youth violence and victimization. The result was an action plan that specifies the government’s commitments to combat juvenile crime and calls upon citizens to develop and promote activities to reduce of juvenile violence in this country.
A PRO-ACTIVE GOVERNMENT
With the rising issue of child abuse, the Juvenile Justice Prevention Act has also allocated governmental funds to support agencies to coordinate judicial and the social services’ responses to domestic violence. These agencies help children in such court proceedings and recommend plans that best serve the children.
Finally, it is suggested that the federal Juvenile Justice Program should help communities recognize that problems exist and provide resources to solve challenges as they arise. It is also important that communities know how to acquire and effectively use available resources. It is tragic when a community recognizes a problem and then neither tries to find solutions nor knows where they can find resources to help them handle the problem. During the next several years, the federal government must vigorously combat juvenile crime: effective community-based programs and modified government programs are needed to protect and support the institution of the family.
However, not everyone believes that the federal government should be involved in reducing youth crime. Many believe that the government has a responsibility to establish, regulate, and enforce laws, but not to invent programs to reduce juvenile crime.
The Honorable Don Sundquist discusses different methods of prevention and rehabilitation that Tennessee has implemented to reduce juvenile crime. One suggestion is for state and federal governments to actively enforce current laws to get the criminals off the streets. This protects law-abiding citizens and provides opportunities to rehabilitate youth. Sundquist also notes problems that state governments have with acquiring and allocating federal funds for dealing with youth. State governments appreciate the money they receive, but they are unsatisfied with the "red tape" that comes with receiving the funds.
Patrick Fagan agrees with Sundquist to a point. He believes that the government needs to enforce the laws already in place. However, he also thinks that governments need to know all the facts before making any decisions. Fagan addresses numerous factors that influence teenagers to commit crimes. Fagan notes that the rise in juvenile criminal activity has paralleled the rise in the lack of parental attachment that youth receive. He also states that many families today have only one parent in the home, usually the mother. Fagan states,
‘State-by-State analysis by the Heritage scholars indicated that a 10 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes leads typically to a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime.’
A PRO-FAMILY SOLUTION
According to Fagan, to reduce juvenile crime, efforts need to focus on strengthening families. He does not believe that more or stricter laws, or federal or state programs can truly save troubled youth:
‘Neighborhoods with a high degree of religious practice are not high-crime neighborhoods.’
Fagan comments that this is even true in inner-city neighborhoods: children in safe, stable homes are more likely to avoid crime. He believes that Americans have a responsibility to raise children in stable homes. In doing so, juvenile crime will decrease. Fagan states that economic problems or racial tensions are are not culprits of criminal activity. He lists five general stages that troubled youth go through before participating in criminal activity. The digression can be halted at any stage, but most effectively if the family structure is kept intact. At the first stage, the family structure crumbles; the parents are divorced or get divorced, and the child begins to exhibit aggression. In the second stage, the child is rejected by his or her peers because of the child’s rowdy behavior. The third stage results from the second: the child replaces the family structure with children of the same age and similar problems. In the fourth stage, this new family unit begins to commit serious crimes, as a consequence of the rising crime situation in their community. In the fourth stage, young girls get involved in prostitution and young men become involved in criminal gangs. In the last stage, the girls get pregnant. There is usually no consideration of marriage, and the man disappears before the child is born. Thus the cycle continues.
Fagan asserts that this process occurs in most juvenile delinquents’ lives. He believes it is vital for someone or a group of people to inspire today’s youth, to rebuild America’s families and communities. This is not—and cannot be—the work of the government; instead, it must be the work of the family, church, and school. The federal government cannot solve the problems of youth crime without strong families.
Arguments for and against the renewing of the Juvenile Justice and Prevention Act recognize the need for community activism in addressing problems in their neighborhoods. Regardless of the federal government’s role in reducing juvenile crime, both sides agree that the nation needs to become motivated to help youth, and individuals need to get involved in the lives of the youth around them.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION
- What has this article shown you about current government discussions on juvenile crime?
- What role should the government play in raising the nation’s children?
- Do today’s churches need to be involved in reducing juvenile crime? What can churches do?
- How can you personally prevent a young person from becoming involved in crime? How can you help a young person already entrenched in criminal behavior?
- What can your church or organization provide for youth to help them be productive during the prime criminal hours for youth?
- Because of the growing number of crimes committed by today’s youth, youth workers need to be prepared for dealing with troubled and criminal youth.
- No governmental laws or programs can help youth unless the communities get involved. One way to ensure community involvement is to encourage churches to actively help troubled youth.
- A cited factor for juvenile crime is a lack of morals and religious affiliation among today’s youth.
- One sign of a growing church is the number of young people in its congregation. It is important to get these young people into the churches and youth organizations and out of the juvenile delinquent centers and prisons.
Catharine Lepic cCYS