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The trouble with kids today

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Last year, local teens and children got in trouble with the law more than 1,200 times.

The top two crimes: stealing and drug- and alcohol-related offenses.

Last year, the juvenile probation office handled more than 200 cases of juveniles who had gotten in trouble for theft, most often shoplifting, and another 200 for possessing drugs, typically marijuana. The other top offenses in the county were battery, skipping school and running away from home, according to the Johnson County juvenile probation department.

What happened next depended on multiple factors, including whether the children had been in trouble before, whether they’re considered to be high-risk to break the law again and whether they followed the rules when on probation.

Most of the cases involve teens and children who are being arrested for the first time and usually don’t get into trouble again, probation director Suzanne Miller said.

They may get a written warning and be released or could be placed in an informal diversion program, where they promise not to get in trouble for a certain period of time, deputy prosecutor Joe Sayler said.

The numbers are similar to previous years. Last year, the county juvenile probation office handled more than 1,000 cases involving teens and children who committed crimes in Johnson County. Some of those children could have been from other counties, and some may be counted twice if they had multiple cases in one year.

But whether the young people made a bad decision and got caught once or are repeatedly getting into trouble, the goal is not just to provide consequences for their actions. The county also wants to figure out why they’re misbehaving, juvenile and family court Magistrate Marla Clark said.

Every time a juvenile case is opened, probation officers do a behavior assessment, which helps officers identify problems leading to criminal activity and then allows them to suggest programs to help.

Maybe the child’s parents are fighting at home and that’s causing the child to lash out at school. Some teens start hanging out with other kids who pressure them into trying marijuana or taking prescription pills, Miller said. And other teens never develop values and morals that help them differentiate between right and wrong, she added.

“Because they’re juveniles, our goal is to get them out of the system and keep them out of the system. We don’t want to see them as adults in the criminal justice system,” Miller said.

During the assessment, the juvenile is asked about the particular incident and about home, school and social life. Miller said the probation officer is looking for problems that have been clearly linked to delinquency, such as family conflict, substance abuse, poor values and attitudes, and mental health disorders.

If a teen shows signs of family problems, for example, the court may assign the child and parents to family counseling, Clark said.

The court can order parents to participate in programs or maintain a drug-free home, and parental influence is important for children, Sayler said.

“The court system can’t replace parents,” he said. “They’re going to learn far more at home than I can hope to do with them.”

The programs are highly successful at reducing a child’s risk of getting into trouble again. About 80 percent of juveniles on probation show lower risks of breaking the law again on their last assessment compared with their first, Miller said. That doesn’t mean they won’t get in trouble again, but probation officers prepare them to make a better decision the next time they consider breaking the law, she said.

Most teens who appear in juvenile court are 16 or 17, but kids as young as 11 and 12 are caught stealing or already have started using drugs, Clark said. Many drug cases involve marijuana but teens also use the same kinds of deadly drugs that adults use, such as methamphetamine, prescription painkillers and heroin, she said.

A juvenile typically will be on probation for six months after getting in trouble, and that can include meeting with a probation officer every two weeks, taking random drug tests, obeying a nightly curfew, and having staff check on attendance, grades and behavior at school, Miller said.

If teens aren’t following the rules of probation, Clark can have them spend a few nights up at the juvenile detention center. In the most severe cases, she can send them to the Indiana Department of Correction. She said that’s rarely needed, but she does send about 10 children per year to state juvenile prisons.

“Even the time they have to sit and wait on their court hearings, when I’ve just got a review hearing scheduled and you’ve got that trip you’ve got to make and then you’re sitting in the lobby and waiting for your turn to come in, those are all good tools,” Clark said.

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