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Juvenile Crime Must Be Nipped in the Bud : Efforts to Predict Worst Offenders Deserve Support

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The Orange County Probation Department has conducted what it called one of the largest studies of juvenile delinquency ever undertaken in this country. It tracked the criminal activities of 6,500 youthful offenders since 1985. The sobering conclusion: A mere 8% commit about 55% of the repeat offenses.

For years law enforcement officials have talked of “bad apples,” habitual criminals who commit felony after felony and become one-person crime waves. The 13-year-old boy arrested in Florida last month in connection with the murder of a foreign tourist, for example, had been arrested more than 50 times.

But water-cooler gossip and shared anecdotes do not provide the necessary basis for making policy. What is needed is the type of research conducted in Orange County, depressing though the results may be.

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Now probation officials are taking the sensible next step, which will be the tougher part. They are trying to predict just which delinquents will become the worst offenders, and trying to figure out how to stop them before they do more harm.

In addition, county agencies involved in law enforcement, health care, mental health counseling and social services are likely to be asked to help devise a program of deterrence.

Orange County has a wealth of resources, and it’s a good idea to use them all toward a goal as important as public safety.

The Probation Department’s research found that about 71% of those under 18 did not commit another offense during the time they were studied. Another 21% committed a second offense, and sometimes a third. But 8% committed four or more crimes ranging from shoplifting and car thefts to burglaries and fatal drive-by shootings.

The worse their home life, the more likely those under 18 were to run afoul of the law. They often lived in poverty and were victims of physical and sexual abuse. Many had parents who were alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals. The study reinforced the findings of previous research that caring parents who set good examples for their children give them a leg up on life.

What happens when parents don’t care is easy to see in cases like that of Rick, now 17 and a veteran of nearly a dozen arrests. Rick joined a violent Santa Ana street gang when he was only 10 because he received little supervision at home and “I wanted to be part of the group.”

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Rick dropped out of school before he became a teen-ager. No one at home forced him to go back. As the years went on, the crimes piled up, and the revolving door of justice kept him from serving jail time. Arrests brought only probation, with conditions he usually ignored. Finally he committed one break-in too many and wound up at the Youth Guidance Center, run by the Probation Department.

Many of the study results are common sense, though that does not make them less important. For instance, children with a wretched home life are more likely to commit a crime than those from happy homes; give a teen with problems at home an alcohol problem and the road to crime is even more likely; add a drug problem, and the chances for criminality grow greater still.

Youths incarcerated in Orange County are being convicted of ever more serious crimes. The Probation Department deserves support and encouragement in its plan to follow up on its important study.

We must find ways to help juvenile delinquents, their potential victims and the county taxpayers whose money should be spent on better things than jails.

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