Juvenile arrests sharply declining

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Kevin Hoffman
Sunday, November 6, 2011
— Rock and Walworth counties are matching a statewide trend of plummeting juvenile arrests.

In 2010, fewer juveniles were arrested in Rock and Walworth counties than in any of the 10 prior years.

Officials credit proactive school programs, more effective prevention techniques and an overall reduction in crime.

In Janesville, juvenile arrests have dropped 30 percent since 2000.

"There certainly seems to be better programs available," Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said. "I think some other contributing factors is we have five officers in schools—three in middle and two in high school—and I think there have been decisions in schools not to refer everything to the police, to divert some things that could be arrests to discipline within the schools."

Janesville is not alone.

All but three of the 24 law enforcement agencies in Rock and Walworth counties arrested significantly fewer juveniles in 2010 than 10 years earlier.

Statewide, juvenile arrests have declined 42 percent over the last decade, according to an October report published by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. The drop led to the closure of state juvenile corrections facilities in Waukesha and Racine counties earlier this year, saving an estimated $23 million annually.

Counties and municipalities stand to save millions more.

Working with kids

Experts and law enforcement officials believe community programs and an overall drop in crime contributed to the sharp decline in juvenile arrests.

"I think it's a combination of things," said Jim Moeser, deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. "I think we are and have been in a good trend with fewer offenses by kids. Especially more serious offenses."

In the last five years alone, violent offenses by juveniles declined 17.5 percent across the state, according to the report. Property crimes were down 29 percent, and drug offenses dropped 19.5 percent.

The most significant reduction in arrests in Walworth and Rock counties came over the last three years. That's when Rock County implemented several programs to help curb youth crime, said Lance Horozewski, manager of the county juvenile justice and prevention division.

Horozewski's division has 28 staff members who visit troubled juveniles at diversion sites in Beloit and Janesville. Some children meet with justice workers two days a week, others for seven.

Horozewski called the sessions "skills based work," teaching juveniles to identify with others, providing mental health counseling or pinpointing triggers for their anger.

The county has a financial incentive to keep kids out of state correctional facilities, where incarceration costs about $100,000 a year. Ten years ago, Rock County was paying to incarcerate nearly 50 children, he said. Today it's paying for six.

"It all starts with the juvenile court allowing us to work with the kids in the community," Horozewski said.

"The largest difference is the caseloads of juvenile justice workers are cut in half, which allows them to see kids weekly, meet with parents and give them the services they need. Another aspect is a much larger focus on diversion services, getting these kids skills and treatment to get them on the right path."

Horozewski said Rock County's programs were mostly developed within the last few years, when juvenile crime had its most significant decline.

The steady drop also is apparent in Walworth County, where law enforcement arrested fewer than half as many juveniles last year compared to 10 years ago. Officials there point to the same reasons: proactive schools and community programs.

The Walworth County Sheriff's Office covers the rural parts of the county, where juvenile crimes are different than those in schools, most of which are covered by municipal police. Capt. Dana Nigbor said the sheriff's office mostly responds to juvenile incidents of disorderly conduct, underage drinking and truancy.

The number of juvenile arrests can be linked to factors such as the frequency of concerts at Alpine Valley, she said.

"Overall (arrests) are probably lower," Nigbor said. "That is the trend. We do the juvenile referrals and get them into programs."

The sheriff's office arrested 145 juveniles in 2010—a 72 percent decline from 10 years earlier—but Nigbor said that number could be inaccurate. The department is using a new records management system that created problems with the way statistics are reported to the state.

Nigbor said the sheriff's office is working with the state to adjust those numbers.

Moore agreed prevention programs play a significant role in reducing juvenile crime in Janesville, but he also credited the schools, where most juvenile arrests occur.

More schools are handling disciplinary issues in-house instead of calling police. Moore said the same five officers have served several years in Janesville schools, and they continue to have outreach and counseling roles.

Crime rates across all ages are declining, and Moore believes part of the reason is "problem solving efforts" designed to identify the core issues and diminish the number of repeat offenders and calls for service.

Moore said officers meet with the families of gang members to offer alternatives. His department developed a domestic violence intervention team last year, which he hopes will interrupt the cycle of violence that contributes to children committing criminal acts later in life.

More work to do

Horozewski hopes Wisconsin will go further.

"We really need to make an investment in mental health and (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) services," he said. "There's a large underdevelopment in regards to a complete system for juveniles in AODA. The last report we got, we had an evaluation from our partners that identified that as a gap in Rock County."

Moeser has another suggestion to help Wisconsin's youth: raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction back to 17.

Since 1996, 17-year-old offenders have been prosecuted in adult court. In the 15 years since, about 250,000 17-year-olds have been arrested as adults for nonviolent crimes, according to the study from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

The report calls the change in the mid-1990s an "overreaction to rising youth crime," which has since subsided.

Legislation to put 17-year-old offenders back into juvenile court was introduced in each of the last two sessions, but it never gained traction, Moeser said.

Starting adult court jurisdiction at age 18 prevents teens from establishing an adult criminal record too early, Moeser said. He argues keeping them in the juvenile court system provides more opportunities for rehabilitation.

Last updated: 6:58 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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