Recent summit aims to prevent juvenile crime

Mon, 12/31/2007 - 9:54am
By: The Citizen

Most everyone in south Fulton and across metro Atlanta today who pays attention to criminal activity is acutely aware that juvenile crime is skyrocketing. But if Fulton County Commissioner Bill Edwards has his way, the juvenile crime statistics for 2008 might show some needed improvement.

The reality of juvenile crime was addressed Dec. 13 in a conference entitled “Pathways to Care,” a prevention and intervention summit held at Georgia International Convention Center in College Park. Successful intervention is a constant goal, yet new measures suggested by Edwards may go further in resolving juvenile crime by closing the revolving door of catch-and-release approach that holds no consequences. Those new measures could come in 2008 in the form of a new community juvenile prosecutor and in the restructuring or elimination of the current 12-point system for juvenile offenders.

“The good thing about today is that we are not looking at the ways to incarcerate youth. That’s always an option that’s going to be there forever,” Edwards said. “What we’re looking for are innovative ways to intervene with youth prior to getting to the point of intervention. The other thing is that (youth) organizations come in and talk about youth and their lack of participation. Children don’t voluntarily do anywhere. So when we do funding for organizations, we have to make sure they have outcomes that will give us the best bang for our buck. In the end, it’s all about the fact that juvenile crime must stop.”

Edwards cited two recent juvenile deaths and residents securing gun permits in increasing numbers as evidence of the changing landscape of juvenile crime, especially burglary. The 1,078 cases of juvenile crime in south Fulton during 2006 is unexceptable, he said. Yet juvenile crime exists on a landscape evident far beyond the geographic boundaries of south Fulton County, encompassing much of metro Atlanta.

“So what are we doing as a county? We are enforcing the juvenile curfew, we’re going into communities to help set up Neighborhood Watch programs, we’re setting up traffic roadblocks that have been very effective, we’ve set up the new community restorative board for first-time and minor offenders and we’re telling people to call us immediately when they see suspicious activities in their neighborhoods,” Edwards said, noting that no community in America has the resources to station on officer on every street or on every corner.

Asked during a conference break if more is needed to combat juvenile crime, Edwards quickly answered, yes. That additional help could come in the form of a new position for a community prosecutor and the abolition of the juvenile point system that turns juvenile offenders back onto the streets time after time.

“I’ve put a position for a community prosecutor into the 2008 county budget and I don’t think there will be a problem getting it approved. She operates out of the district attorney’s office but will be stationed at the annex in south Fulton. She will be able to offer technical assistance on police reports to keep them from being thrown out of court. And she will work with residents who have been burglarized, including notifying the victims and their neighbors of the court date so they can attend and help influence the judge’s decision on the case,” said Edwards. “And perhaps the most beautiful thing, the community prosecutor has the right to ban an individual from a community.”

Whether in the unincorporated areas or in the cities of south Fulton, officers and residents have long experienced the bewildering reality that a juvenile can commit nearly any crime, only to be handed over to parents with no fear of incarceration due to a point system that has become anything but effective. From there it often becomes a revolving door of crime, apprehension and release with no consequences and not enough points to hold young offenders. This was the reason why the city of Fairburn in 2005 resorted to filing city charges instead of state charges for some 17 year-old offenders. Unlike what would have happened in the Fulton County juvenile system, the city court judge handed out six-month jail sentences. And it is the point system, the 12-point assessment, that many citizens and police say must be corrected or abolished. For Edwards, his preference is to either abolish it sometime in 2008 or have it transformed into something that will more adequately punish the offenders while protecting the victims.

“I used to think the 12-point assessment was in the law, but it’s not. It’s a juvenile justice system policy, it’s not a law,” Edwards said. “If they don’t measure up to 12 points they don’t keep them. And once they commit the crime and once the crime is adjudicated the point system starts over again. So I think the 12-point policy is just about out the door. Even without abolishing the system today, we’ve met with our police and the juvenile justice system and we’ve agreed that a child that comes there needs to be held 24-48 hours, not sitting at a desk talking with some psychiatrist and waiting for momma to come in, and leaving in an hour or two. If you come to juvenile you need to be incarcerated, you need to feel what it’s like. We’re doing this now.”

“We’ve also agreed that some crimes, like kicking in someone’s door, are heinous crimes. With these, forget the 12-point assessment and go straight to detention. This includes burglaries and assaults. We’re starting to do this now even though the 12-point assessment is still on the books. I know the system is crowded with no place to put these kids. So we may have to use trailers or something because it’s not right, for these kids to commit these crimes knowing they are not going to be punished, and with the taxpayers and other kids being victimized. If there is any decent side to the mess with juvenile crime it is that it has raised awareness everywhere, including with the school system.”

More than 100 stakeholders attended the summit, discussing the juvenile justice system, the role and impact of youth-program provider organizations and the occurrence of juvenile crime in south Fulton.

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