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June 7, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Ken Burton, Columbia’s police chief, thinks a juvenile offender who commits violent crime poses more of a threat to a city than an adult does.
“My theory is that you take a 15-year-old kid, they don’t think about prison,” Burton says. “They don’t think about being killed. They think they’re going to live forever, and that makes them even more dangerous.”Related Articles
Burton’s police department plays a lead role in catching juvenile offenders, many of whom have committed property crimes in Columbia. After police pull juveniles off the street, those offenders enter Missouri’s juvenile justice system, part of which has been lauded as a model for the country. Despite the high praise, however, those involved remain unsure about how well the juvenile justice system serves Columbia’s children.
Crime in Columbia
Some of Columbia’s youth crime stems from local gangs, Burton says. He defines a criminal street gang as three or more people who band together for the purpose of engaging in criminal activity.
These aren’t the nationwide-gangs that traveled from city to city recruiting in the ’90s. Instead, they’re groups with less structure. Burton thinks they begin when youths defend turf in a neighborhood. Groups form, and then the criminal activity occurs.
Although the police department knows the gangs exist, it’s tough to stop them. Gang statute arrests don’t happen often in Columbia because suspected juveniles won’t talk about them, says Thomas Quintana, a police officer with the street crimes unit. Even though the officers know where the gangs hang out and who’s in them, they often have to arrest juveniles on other charges.
The most common juvenile offenses are property crimes, such as car or home break-ins. They often occur in “rental boom” areas because the homes get run-down, and renters start to care less about who lives in them, Quintana says. That’s his theory as to why there has been increased juvenile crime in the Derby Ridge and Rice Road area lately.
Quintana circles Danbury Court in his cruiser at dusk and points out duplexes. If a juvenile lives in one of these homes, then he or she knows exactly what the other identical duplexes look like on the inside, Quintana says.
“They’re capable of anything,” Burton says. “There’s nothing that age is going to prevent them
Burton says the police department’s role in juvenile justice consists of catching youths and turning them over to the system. He thinks the hardest part of the job comes next.
With a 15-year-old offender, a judge isn’t always sure what kind of life that child comes from or will have, so he or she will have to make a decision about what happens to the juvenile based on the information available.
“And it’s sad sometimes because you have kids that people look back on and go, ‘Man, if I’d just been tougher on that kid and maybe sent him away for a while, he might still be alive,’” Burton says.
How the system works
A child enters the juvenile justice system by receiving a referral, which can come from a police officer, parents or school officials. Offenses that warrant referrals range from suspected abuse to truancy and homicide.
A juvenile case in Missouri can be classified three ways: abuse/neglect, status offense and delinquency. Status offenses include excessive absences from school, runaways and general incorrigibility. A case is deemed delinquency if the juvenile commits an act that would be considered a crime if committed by an adult, according to the Missouri Juvenile Officer handbook.
However, Vivian Murphy, executive director of the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, says she’s hearing that child abuse and neglect cases are up while delinquency is down.
After a referral is made, the child is either handed back to his or her guardian(s) or is put in short-term detention. Technically, detention should only be used if the juvenile might run away, needs protection from something or is a threat to the general public.
More parameters are considered when making the choice to detain, Murphy says. For example, juveniles are given a risk assessment before they’re detained. The assessment measures the chances of the youth recidivating. It considers age, prior referrals, history of substance abuse and school record.
Murphy says children from Boone County who end up in a detention center are lucky compared to other juveniles in Missouri. The detention portion of the county’s juvenile justice system is a nicer detention facility than others in Missouri.
After a juvenile offender is either released to a guardian or detained, the next step in the process is to decide whether the case will be dismissed, handled informally or dealt with in court. A child who receives a referral and is released to a guardian can experience any of these options, but detained juveniles always have a hearing.
Sometimes, that’s where attorney Michael Byrne stepped in. He has his own practice and sees between two and five cases a year. Few parents choose to pay for his services instead of signing up for a free public defender.
The juvenile offenses he dealt with as a public defender often included possession of a controlled substance or theft. Most commonly, lesser crimes don’t make it to court, so a lawyer is seldom involved. Consequently, if Byrne goes to a courtroom with a juvenile now, he’s handling a robbery, shooting or serious assault.
For cases that make it to a judge, the decision is whether to try the offender as a juvenile or an adult. According to the Missouri Juvenile Officer handbook, the relevant age is determined by when the crime was committed, rather than the juvenile’s age during court proceedings.
But the decision to try a juvenile as an adult depends not only on the crime but also on the justice system’s capabilities, Byrne says.
“The juvenile system is set up to handle a large number of problems that juveniles go through,” he says. “Sometimes, we look at resources and say, ‘We don’t have the ability and the resources to handle this case where we can help this child kind of go back to society.’”
When the child is not tried as an adult and goes through the juvenile court system, there are four potential outcomes: adjudication is deferred, the juvenile pays fines or completes community service, the juvenile is put on probation or the offender is placed in a juvenile justice center.
In 2007, The New York Times ran an editorial lauding Missouri’s juvenile corrections system, calling it a “nationally recognized model for how to deal effectively with troubled children.”
The system was praised for focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. It also pointed out that juveniles are housed in smaller centers near their homes so families can participate in the correctional process and that caseworkers follow up with offenders to help them find jobs.
In 2010, 13 percent of cases in Boone and Callaway counties were referred to the Division of Youth Services for out-of-home placement, according to the Missouri Juvenile and Family Division
How good is it, really?
Byrne struggles to decide how well the juvenile justice system works in Columbia and Boone County.
He knows kids who went through the system for smaller offenses but then committed more serious crimes once they became adults.
“The juvenile system was deeply involved with them and was trying to assert consequences for them,” he says. “It really saddened me to see it didn’t change their behavior.”
However, he does say the success stories are the ones that probably aren’t told as often and that compared to a larger city, Columbia’s juvenile justice system has many resources.
Ultimately, Byrne says, dealing with juvenile offenders is just a challenging task.
Burton says the system isn’t perfect. “There’s good and bad in it. All we can do is try to make it work the best we can.”