For the week of March 17, 1999  thru March 23, 1999  

Multi-faceted approach targets juvenile crime

Express Staff Writer

More than three years after a new Idaho juvenile-crime bill gave more authority to local jurisdictions, participants in the Blaine County juvenile justice system say the county has made great strides in treating young offenders.

In Hailey, home to many of the Wood River Valley’s youths and the location of its public high school and middle school, Police Chief Jack Stoneback said juvenile crime is down considerably.

Stoneback estimated that a couple of years ago, juvenile crime accounted for about 70 percent of his officers’ activity. Now, he said, that figure is down to 45 or 50 percent. He attributes the decline to more and better local programs to keep kids out of trouble, and deal with those already in trouble.

According to data supplied by the Blaine County Probation Department, the most common offenses for which juveniles are convicted are minor consumption of alcohol and petit theft. However, juvenile commission of more serious crimes is not unusual. Over the past three years, there have been 24 juvenile convictions for battery, 22 for burglary and 28 for malicious injury to property.

Police report the existence of a small, hard-core group of 10 or 12 repeat offenders. The vast majority of juvenile offenders, they say, only go through the system once.

Hailey police officer Rob Namer works as a liaison with the county’s middle and high schools. He believes the juvenile crime rate will continue to drop as the few regular offenders grow up and leave the area. The county’s juvenile programs, he says, are having an effect on younger kids.

Until October 1995, juvenile criminals were handled by the state Department of Health and Welfare under the Youth Rehabilitation Act. That legislation was premised on a very optimistic view of youths’ corrigibility and placed relatively little emphasis on accountability.

"Just by its very name, it implied a lot of touchy, huggy stuff," said local defense attorney Doug Nelson.

That kind of stuff was deemed to have been ineffective, and the state Legislature responded with the Youth Corrections Act. The policy statement for that law includes "competency development" of youthful offenders as one of its aims—but lists accountability and community protection first. The law set tougher standards for procedures and punishment, established the Department of Juvenile Corrections, made parents more responsible for their children’s actions and passed most of the responsibility for treating young criminals from the state to the counties.

In response, Blaine County and its cities have been building an extensive juvenile justice system and network of treatment programs. Those include an expanded county probation department, drug and alcohol counseling, a better-parenting project, a juvenile-liaison police officer in Hailey and a weekend juvenile detention facility.

Juveniles over the age of 14 can be tried as adults when accused of serious felonies such as murder, rape or robbery, or of offenses involving alcohol, tobacco or driving.

If tried as juveniles, their cases are prosecuted in Blaine County by deputy prosecuting attorney Jill Bolton. Bolton said she handles five to 10 juvenile cases every week in the Blaine County courthouse.

She said that in order of seriousness, those cases can go one of four routes:

 Diversion, under which the accused youth skirts a court trial and accepts a punishment meted out by a volunteer Youth Accountability Board. Punishments typically comprise community service and the writing of a letter of apology to the victim.

 A court trial and, upon conviction, an "informal adjustment" and probation. The "informal adjustment" allows the conviction to be expunged from the offender’s record if he or she complies with the terms of probation.

 A court trial with a suspended sentence and probation, which usually last six months to a year. This scenario generally applies to kids who have committed a fairly serious offense or have a previous conviction. Sentences, which can be imposed upon a probation violation, can extend to 90 days detention for a misdemeanor and 180 days for a felony.

 A court trial and transfer of custody to the state Department of Corrections. Sentencing in that case is up to the department, which can order the defendant held in a state juvenile detention facility until the convict turns 21 years old.

Bolton said a primary goal of the juvenile system is to create immediate consequences for the offenders’ actions. Often she said, most jail detention comes immediately after arrest while the defendant is awaiting a court appearance. Juvenile defendants are held in the Snake River Detention Facility in Twin Falls, and have no right to bail.

Defense attorney Nelson said that harsher sentences imposed under the Youth Corrections Act have had a sobering effect on his clients.

"Once a child went through the old Child Rehabilitation Act and discovered that there wasn’t much that was going to happen to him, there was no deterrent," Nelson said. "Now I’m not seeing kids thumbing their noses at the judge as much as I used to."

Though the Youth Rehabilitation Act brought the juvenile system closer in character to the adult system, the juvenile system retains an emphasis on rehabilitation, particularly for minor offenders.

"The focus still is trying to intervene to make sure juveniles don’t come within the adult system," said magistrate Judge John Varin, who handles juvenile cases for Blaine and five other counties.

That effort starts with Status Offender Services (SOS), a program funded by federal money to straighten out kids in the 12- to 15-year-old range who are lurching out of control but have not committed real crimes. "Status offenses" include curfew violations, running away from home and truancy.

Referrals to the program come from police, schools, social-service agencies and from the parents themselves.

"Families are starting to call up and say, ‘I need some help—this child is out of control!’" said Tammy Clark, coordinator for the regional SOS program, whose headquarters are in Twin Falls.

Attempts to intervene with youths who are older or have committed real offenses are done largely through probation conditions, which can include community service, victim restitution, drug and alcohol treatment programs, group counseling, school attendance requirements, drug tests and jobs.

Teresa Espedal, the county’s chief probation officer, said 70 youths are currently under her department’s supervision. She estimated that 60 percent of those convicts are boys. She said the percentage of females has been creeping higher as more girls are convicted of alcohol consumption.

Espedal said a main goal of probation is to give kids life skills, both of the psychological and practical varieties. She said a group-counseling program, called Choices, provides part of the psychological component. The program, she said, seeks to make kids aware that adults cannot make decisions for them, and points out errors in their thinking that allow them to make excuses for their behavior.

Probation officers also teach kids how to find and apply for jobs, and provide them with information on other resources available.

"We’re really trying to hook them in whenever we can," Espedal said.

Many Blaine County juvenile offenders are heavy users of illegal drugs. That is true to a large extent, Bolton said, because much juvenile crime is done to obtain money to buy drugs. She points to a series of six burglaries of businesses on Hailey’s Main Street committed by a group of teen-agers in late 1997 as one example.

Bolton blames the relatively tolerant local attitude toward alcohol and drugs as part of the problem, saying she has been "astounded" at the easy availability of drugs to youths.

"I don’t think people understand what kind of an impact it’s having on kids," she said.

Peter Bebaun, an associate pastor with the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, said he asked 28 youths he has been counseling what they think could be done to limit underage drinking.

The overwhelming response, he said, was, "Come down on them like a ton of bricks."

"What they were feeling was a lack of boundaries," Bebaun said. "What they’re begging us to do is to dignify them by giving them more boundaries."

Periodic drug testing is a common condition of probation, even for kids whose crimes were not related to drugs. Unfortunately, Espedal said, positive test results, particularly for cocaine and methamphetamine, are becoming more common.

Young defendants with drug problems are ordered to attend Project Respect, a drug and alcohol-treatment program organized by the county, cities and hospital auxiliaries about four years ago.

Young offenders who are viewed as heading toward a life of adult crime can be ordered to participate in the Detour Program, which attempts to shock kids into shape by exposing them to prison life. The kids spend a day at a state prison and talk to inmates there.

"It’s pretty striking how similar some of their lives have been’" Espedal said. "It’s a good eye opener."

Another means of giving kids a taste of prison life that will soon be available is weekend detention at the county’s minimum-security detention facility near Friedman airport. Currently, the only detention option is to send offenders to the Snake River Detention Facility, at a cost of more than $100 a day. The new program will be an intermediary alternative.

Normally, the minimum-security facility is used to house adults. However, Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Doug Werth said a program will be put in place there on weekends specifically for juveniles.

"Our goal is not to just warehouse them, but to have a very structured program," Werth said.

He said the program will include drug and alcohol education, life skills training, critical thinking skills and anger management. Werth said he is recruiting volunteer professionals in those fields.

"I think it will be a tremendously rewarding opportunity to participate," he said.

Bolton says she would like to see the county also create a "halfway house" as a temporary residence for juvenile offenders who are victims of abuse or neglect. She said some of those kids are placed in foster homes, but that those homes are hard to find.

When a juvenile is placed on probation, his parents, in a sense, are on probation as well. Parents can be fined or cited for contempt of court if they help their child avoid probation requirements or even fail to report a probation violation.

As a condition of a juvenile’s probation, his parents can be ordered by the court to attend the Parenting Project, a 10-week-long series of classes to give parents tools in reining in a child with "out-of-control" behavior. The classes teach parents how to set limits and create immediate consequences for bad acts, as well as how to encourage positive behavior. Parents leave the program with a long-term support network of professionals and other parents.

Everyone involved in the local juvenile justice system agrees that serious criminal behavior can usually be traced to problems at home, whether of ineffective control, abuse or neglect. Divorce, and a subsequent single-parent home, Bolton contends, is a major cause of a lack of parental control.

Sometimes, the combined efforts of improved parenting, probation conditions and treatment programs fail to have their desired effect. Then, detention is viewed as the last resort.

Recently, a young man who just turned 18 tested positive for marijuana while on probation. According to Bolton, he had been convicted of six car burglaries in Hailey, committed to obtain money to buy drugs. He had made no effort to succeed in Project Respect, Bolton said. Last week Judge Varin sentenced him to 120 days in the Snake River Juvenile Detention Facility.

"There’s only so much you can do to make someone do something," Bolton said. "This is our last chance to let him know what it’s like to be an adult criminal."

But increasingly, Bolton and others say, one exposure to the juvenile justice system is enough to straighten most kids out.

"Recidivism, in my opinion, is going down because of these programs," defense attorney Nelson said. "I’m much less cynical about the juvenile justice system than I was before."

Probation officer Espedal said she is "seeing successes every day."

"Hopefully, one day all our jobs will be focused on keeping kids from ever getting into this department," she said. "I would love to work myself out of a job."


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