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8% of Orange County Delinquents Linked to 55% of Repeat Crimes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County’s juvenile justice system is a virtual revolving door for a tiny percentage of delinquent teen-agers, a seven-year study has found.

A mere 8% of juvenile delinquents commit about 55% of the repeat-offense juvenile crimes, according to Probation Department officers who have been tracking and recording the activities of 6,500 delinquents since 1985.

Some youngsters have been arrested up to 14 times within the last six years, officials said.

More than half of these juvenile repeat offenders were arrested again after reaching adulthood.

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Local probation officials, who describe their research as one of the largest studies of juvenile delinquency in the United States, are using it to design a program they hope will identify potential chronic offenders and work with them before they become incorrigible.

Michael Schumacher, the head of the county’s Probation Department, declined to discuss details of the program, which is expected to be launched in January. He said the county, working with officials from Temple University and the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, wants to provide counseling and other support for the families of the troubled children.

“If we help these kids, society on the whole will benefit,” said Schumacher. “There will be fewer victims, fewer wasted lives and far less costs to the taxpayers.”

In response to the Orange County research, Los Angeles County probation officials delved into their records and drew a similar conclusion: A small minority of juvenile delinquents--about 16%--are responsible for a majority of the repeat offenses in Los Angeles County.

Like Orange County, the Los Angeles County Probation Department is preparing a program to identify and help potential habitual offenders, said Roy Sakoda, a probation consultant in Los Angeles.

The children who are clogging the juvenile justice system are described by Orange County authorities as predatory youths with broken family and community ties. Most of them have lived in poverty and are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Many were raised--or neglected--by parents who are alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals, researchers say.

In conducting the study, probation officers tracked 3,304 first-time juvenile offenders from 1985 to 1987 and another 3,164 from 1987 to 1989. The activities of some offenders were recorded for up to six years after their first brush with the law.

The vast majority of these youths--71%--did not commit any further offenses. Another 21% committed a second and, sometimes, a third offense.

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But 8% of the juvenile offenders became chronic, repeat offenders. They committed crimes that ranged from shoplifting, car theft, burglary and armed robbery to fatal drive-by shootings.

Probation officials found during their research that juvenile delinquents are plagued by a litany of problems ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to serious family problems.

One-time offenders on average had fewer than one of these significant problems, and other less serious repeat offenders--who came back two or three times--averaged fewer than two. But chronic repeat offenders averaged almost three significant problems.

Thus, probation officials hope to identify potential repeat offenders by searching for those kinds of problems after the first arrest.

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The findings painted a familiar but unsettling portrait of the chronic repeat offender: Most are 15 or younger when they are arrested for their first offense. They do poorly in school, perhaps because they suffer a learning disability, or because they skip or disrupt classes. Often, they use drugs or alcohol and have reputations as thieves or runaways. And they join gangs, seeking the company of other problem children. They will spend an average of 14 months in juvenile lockup before they reach the age of 18.

State officials say Orange County’s research could be helpful to them because repeat offenders make up 63% of the 3,000 juveniles in custody of the California Youth Authority.

“Orange County has hit on something here that we can all use to help our young people,” said Bill Kolender, director of the state youth authority. “I think it’s pretty obvious that we cannot continue the way we’re going. There needs to be early intervention for these kids . . . who are adopting violent anti-social behavior.”


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