Track I
Changing Nature of Juvenile Offenders

by Sandra S. Stone, Ph.D.

During the late 1980's and early 1990's, the nature of offenses committed by juveniles changed. Juvenile crime grew more serious and violent, the rate of offending by females increased disproportionately, youth began entering the juvenile justice system at younger ages, and gang involvement became more prevalent. Recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system must take these changes into account.

Forecasting the Future: Scenarios for the Year 2010

To establish a context for consideration of the future of the juvenile justice system, the workshop began with a presentation 1 of analyses of trends in juvenile arrests. The increase in juvenile arrests during the past decade -- driven by arrests for violent crimes -- raises concerns in light of the projected 30-percent increase in the number of 15- to 16-year-olds by 2010. While the juvenile arrest rate for property crimes remained stable during the late 1980's and early 1990's, the number of juvenile arrests for violent crimes was 67 percent greater than in 1986. Nonetheless, a relatively small percentage of juveniles are arrested for violent crimes. In 1995, the rate was 500 per 100,000, or less than one-half of 1 percent of the juvenile population. Moreover, the juvenile arrest rate for murder declined in 1994 and 1995. In 1994, 82 percent of all counties in the United States did not have even one juvenile charged with murder.

Increases in juvenile crime since the mid-1980's reflect several trends in this country: shifts in the economy, the decline in the extended family and increase in single parenthood, access to more lethal weapons, and the growing role of gangs. Projected trends likely to affect juvenile crime in the future include population growth, increased immigration, broader cultural diversity, welfare reform that may lead to increased childhood poverty, more transfers from juvenile to criminal courts, and soaring prison costs.

Another speaker offered a look at the future in terms of the relationships between economic injustice, childhood maltreatment, and juvenile delinquency. Twenty-six percent of American children live below the poverty line, and recent welfare reforms are expected to add another million children to their ranks. Childhood poverty correlates with increased risk of victimization, and offenders who victimize often have histories of earlier victimization. Between 1985 and 1994, reports of child abuse and neglect increased more than 50 percent. If this trend continues, it will serve to reinforce the cycle of violence.

Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: In Perspective

Findings from OJJDP's Program of Research on the Causes and Correlates of Delinquency gave workshop participants an up-to-date picture of the nature of juvenile delinquency today. For minor delinquency, offending begins around age 7, peaks at ages 9 to 13, rises steadily to age 17 for boys and 15 for girls, and then drops. Nonviolent serious delinquency also begins around age 7 and peaks at age 9. For boys, it peaks again around age 12 and continues rising through age 19. For girls, it peaks again from ages 13 to 15, then declines. Violent offending for boys begins around age 7, then increases steadily from ages 8 to 19. For girls, violent offending peaks around age 13, then declines. While boys are more apt to commit delinquent acts than girls, the number of delinquent girls is increasing at a faster rate.

The earlier youth begin to engage in delinquent behavior, the more likely they are to become chronic offenders. The relatively small proportion of the Causes and Correlates study samples across sites represented by chronic, violent offenders (ranging from 14 to 19 percent) accounted for the bulk of violent juvenile offenses (ranging from 75 to 82 percent). More serious juvenile offenders are more likely to have other problems, involving drugs, mental health, and school. They are also more likely to have been victimized earlier in life. Consequently, intervention efforts need to be multifaceted.

One example of a multifaceted approach to help serious juvenile offenders who have a variety of problems is multisystemic therapy (MST), a home-based program for treating serious offenders with clinical problems. The MST approach is designed to provide communities with affordable, effective remedies for serious antisocial behavior, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol abuse in adolescents. The goal of the MST approach is to provide integrative, cost-effective, family-based treatment that reduces or eliminates the need for out-of-home placement.

MST is founded on the family preservation model, based on the belief that the most effective and ethical route to helping juveniles is through helping their families, and addresses all areas of the offender's life -- self, family, peers, school, and community. Services are directed toward the psychological, social, educational, and material needs of families in which a child is in imminent danger of out-of-home placement.

Evaluations have demonstrated MST's effectiveness in reducing recidivism, strengthening family relationships, and decreasing aggressive behavior. MST has also led to decreased criminal activity and incarceration in studies with violent and chronic juvenile offenders, and results are promising in studies of other populations that present complex clinical problems.

The Capital Offender Program in Giddings, TX, is another program directed toward serious, violent offenders. The program addresses juvenile homicide and uses a therapeutic process. Led by a psychologist and a therapist, groups of eight offenders meet twice a week for 16 weeks. Group activities, including role playing, enable offenders to confront what they have done, develop understanding and empathy, work through their emotional problems, and improve their coping skills. Youth are referred to the program from other Texas Youth Commission facilities after they have completed part of their commitment time, finishing out their time at the Giddings facility. Progress and evaluation of treatment effectiveness are monitored through administration of self-report measures of empathy, hostility-aggression, sense of internal versus external control, narcissism, and interpersonal relatedness. The program has been found to reduce the likelihood of capital offenders' being arrested for a violent offense within a year from release by 53 percent. This pattern remains statistically significant 3 years following release. Youth receiving specialized Capital Offender treatment services are reincarcerated for any offense at a rate of 15.2 percent, compared with 35.6 percent of youth not receiving specialized treatment services.

(Note: Readers interested in the issue of serious and violent juvenile offenders may want to read OJJDP's October 1997 Fact Sheet Expert Panel Issues Report On Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders by J. Foote. Copies can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 800-638-8736.)

New Challenges Posed by Girls in the Juvenile Justice System

Another aspect of the changing nature of juvenile offenders is the growing number of girls in the juvenile justice system. In 1995, females represented 26 percent of juvenile arrests--almost half of them for larceny theft and running away. Although most female juvenile arrests are for nonviolent offenses, the 1981 to 1995 increase in arrests for violent crimes for girls (129 percent) was more than double that for boys (56 percent). During the same period, male juvenile arrests for property crimes fell 7 percent while female juvenile arrests climbed 42 percent. Accordingly, the ratio of male to female juvenile arrests for violent crimes changed from 9 to 1 in 1981 to 6 to 1 in 1995, and the corresponding ratio for property crimes went from 4 to 1 to 3 to 1 -- with a disproportionate increase in court referrals for African-American females in all offense categories.

These statistics help explain why the 1992 amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act addressed, for the first time, the issue of gender bias, requiring States to plan for an analysis of the need for -- and types and delivery of -- gender-specific services. Evidence of gender bias was found, for example, in a 1992 comparative study of 348 violent adolescent females and a similar number of males. The study revealed that half the male offenders were admitted to rehabilitation or alternative programs, but only 29.5 percent of females received alternative treatment.

Workshop attendees heard that once females are within the juvenile justice system, they are treated more severely than boys for similar offenses -- particularly status offenses. Typically, they are placed in programs set up for males. There is little programming designed for females, and few efforts are made to meet their special needs. A high correlation exists between females' victimization and delinquency. Females who are sexually abused often run away and end up on the streets, where they turn to prostitution, drugs, and petty crimes to survive. When they are arrested for delinquent behavior, their initial victimization is largely ignored.

A representative from the Maryland Department of Justice described an innovative strategy that provides gender-specific programs and services for adjudicated female juvenile offenders. Known as the Female Intervention Team, the unit was developed in 1992 in response to the increased female population coming to the attention of the juvenile justice system in Maryland. Staff committed to teamwork develop a network of services focused on females and create an environment in which girls feel comfortable. Case managers provide a variety of programs and services, including Girl Scouts, Academic Career Enrichment (ACE), Pregnancy Prevention, Teen Parenting Group, Parent Support Group, and Substance Abuse Group. In addition, the female juveniles are offered the Rites of Passage program, designed to develop cultural and spiritual awareness for young women and teach them the history of women who paved the road for African-Americans.

(Note: Readers interested in data on female offenders may want to read OJJDP's June 1996 publication Female Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System (Statistics Summary) by E. Poe-Yamagata and J.A. Butts. Copies can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 800-638-8736.)

Programming for Younger Populations in Juvenile Detention and Corrections

Youth are committing delinquent acts at younger ages. The percentage of offenders in the detention population under the age of 14 increased from 12 percent in 1987 to 14 percent in 1991.2 One workshop speaker discussed the following problems posed by very young offenders in detention:

  • They face increased risk of victimization by older youth.

  • They require different school and program services.

  • They need more emotional support.

In part, the difficulty in serving the needs of younger populations is similar to the difficulties found with other special needs groups. Programs and resources are rarely available or, if available, usually not sufficient to serve the entire population in need.

Participants were told about three major OJJDP-funded resources for juvenile confinement facility practitioners:

Additionally, the speaker reported on a "quick and unscientific" survey he had conducted of juvenile confinement facilities in the area of special programs. More than 100 program models were submitted. The responses confirm the existence of creative programs for a wide range of juvenile offenders. Thus, despite the obvious difficulties and challenges, the central theme of this panelist was that there are many program models and examples of how to work with younger populations in juvenile detention and corrections facilities.

A growing number of States are waiving serious and violent juvenile offenders into the adult justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 6,500 juveniles are inmates in adult prisons. The juvenile justice system needs to provide appropriate intervention at an earlier stage of a youth's delinquent behavior than now occurs. Risk classification systems should differentiate between violent and nonviolent offenders. Community-based sanctions should be used more frequently, and juvenile justice professionals should have more manageable caseloads. For juvenile offenders who require incarceration, the use of small, secure treatment programs with transition to the community by way of group homes and aftercare programs has proven effective. Youth sentenced under the adult criminal justice system should be housed in small treatment facilities on the grounds of adult prisons.

Finally, a Cook County, IL, judge offered his "Top Ten Wish List" for the juvenile justice system:

  • Safety is paramount.

  • Educational programs are needed.

  • The judiciary and those who work in the juvenile justice system need to be more involved in the community.

  • We must find positive aspects in each child and emphasize them.

  • We must relate to children as individuals.

  • We must develop effective interventions.

  • We must develop the capacity to address mental health needs.

  • We must be and provide positive role models for children.

  • We must provide children with directions and clear and simple rules and enforce them fairly.

  • We must believe in rehabilitation, care about children, and interact with them positively.

Juvenile Gangs and Crime: The Challenge to Detention and Corrections

As demonstrated by the survey recently completed by OJJDP's National Youth Gang Center, gang activity has extended beyond the inner cities into smaller communities and suburbs. Nearly half the law enforcement agencies responding to the survey described their gang activity as getting worse. Gang affiliations present special challenges and problems within juvenile detention and correctional facilities. Speakers examined the prevalence of the problem, its implications for management of rival gang activity within institutions, the impact on programming, the interplay of problems associated with overcrowding, and the special challenges to structuring effective aftercare programs for gang-affiliated youth.

A presenter from the State University of West Georgia reported that up to 30 percent of youth incarcerated in Georgia's juvenile corrections facilities claimed active gang membership. Many youth said they had become gang members for the first time while they were incarcerated. Staff observed that youth who had been members of gangs seemed to be recruiting new members inside the institution. Thus, it seems that the institution may be a breeding ground for new gangs. Eighty-four percent of institutional staff surveyed said they had not received any training on how to deal with gang members.

A California Youth Authority (CYA) representative discussed the management of the more than 2,000 gang members in CYA facilities. Staff receive gang training with annual updates. CYA does not allow gang activity or gang behavior in its facilities. The speaker said gang leaders need to be given challenging alternative activities because they are generally very bright. CYA gang violence reduction programs, including culturally sensitive parenting programs for fathers, appear to be having an impact. These programs were to be evaluated beginning in 1997.

A speaker from the Oregon Youth Authority described community-based gang intervention. He provided an overview of the Minority Youth Concerns Program -- a gang intervention, youth empowerment program designed to give youth positive exposure to alternatives to their delinquent behavior. He noted that the program is based on principles that are universally applicable, regardless of ethnic background. Staff use peer group sessions with incarcerated gang members to develop social and behavior skills to enable the youth to take responsibility for their behavior and set goals for their future. The individual's personal growth is stressed. Gang members are taught paths to change, including how to get a GED, develop work and job interviewing skills, and change their personal lives when they leave the facility. They learn that they have a responsibility to the community, and former gang members go to elementary schools and talk about gang problems. Strong aftercare programs and a support network are essential in helping to integrate former gang members back into the community following incarceration.

(Note: Recent OJJDP publications concerning youth gang issues include the 1995 National Youth Gang Survey (Program Summary) (Adobe Acrobat File) , published in spring 1997; Youth Gangs (Fact Sheet) by J.C. Howell, published in December 1997; and the forthcoming Youth Gangs: an Overview (Bulletin) by J.C. Howell. The latter is the first in OJJDP's new Youth Gang Series, which will delve into key issues related to youth gangs. Copies of these publications and future titles in the Youth Gang Series can be obtained by calling the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse at 800-638-8736. Another source of information about youth gangs is the OJJDP-funded National Youth Gang Center (NYGC), operated by the Institute for Intergovernmental Research. The telephone number for NYGC is 904-385-0600.)


1 The names of workshop presenters for all six tracks are included in the full conference agenda at the end of this document.

2 For a look at an array of recent data on the characteristics of younger delinquents, see J.A. Butts and H.N. Snyder, The Youngest Delinquents: Offenders Under Age 15, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 1997.

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