LIMA – In the enhanced informational age that is a byproduct of the internet and social media, perception and reality often find themselves at loggerheads.
Such is the case in the expansive world of juvenile crime. Because the wheels of justice spin largely behind closed doors when it comes to the juvenile court system, citizens are sometimes left to speculate, at best, or to wade through endless statistics to learn about the state of juvenile crime in their own communities.
But despite the dedication last month of a new $7 million Juvenile Detention Center in Allen County, which may suggest that juvenile crime is on the rise in the county, statistics on local, state and federal levels all point in the opposite direction.
“The biggest trend I notice, and it’s fascinating to me to study the psychology of social media in today’s society, is the perception that juvenile crime is up,” said Berlin Carroll, administrator of the Allen County Juvenile Court.
“That’s not the case at all. What’s up is the awareness that juvenile crimes are being committed.”
The numbers back up Carroll’s assertion.
Down across the board
Juvenile crime in the United States peaked statistically in 1996, when there were 8,475 arrests per 100,000 persons aged 10-17 nationwide, according to the website for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In 2016, the last year for which national statistics are available, that number fell to 2,407 incidents per 100,000 youths aged 10-17 — a decline of more than 70 percent from 20 years earlier.
The numbers are falling across the Buckeye State, too.
The Ohio Department of Youth Services reports annually the number of delinquent youths who are adjudicated — the equivalent of being found guilty in an adult court — as delinquents in each of Ohio’s 88 counties. By definition, a delinquency offense is an act committed by a person under the age of 18 that would be a crime if committed by an adult.
Throughout Ohio, 4,195 youths were adjudicated in 2018 — well below the 7,100 youths convicted of felony-level acts 10 years earlier. Of last year’s total, 86% of those adjudicated were male, 45% were white and 48% were black.
In Allen County between 2009 and 2018 a total of 561 juveniles were adjudicated as delinquents. In 2009 the county had 87 such youths. Those numbers continued to drop annually to a low of 43 delinquent offenders in 2014, followed by a mild uptick in 2015 and 2016.
In 2018, the most recent year for which statewide statistics are available, 31 youths were adjudicated as delinquents in Allen County. Of that total, 24 were male. Nineteen were black and 11 were white, with one child categorized as mixed race. Three of those offenders were turned over to the Department of Youth Services for commitment at one of three state-run Juvenile Detention Centers.
Locking kids up
During 2018 there were 221 youths — 161 males and 71 females — held for varying lengths of time at the Allen County Juvenile Detention Center on Wardhill Avenue in Lima. That total reflects a steady annual decline from the high of 403 juvenile incarcerations in 2015.
But Carroll said that when it comes to determining the average daily population at the JDC, or even the average length of detention, figures can be misleading.
“There are 26 beds at the (Wardhill) facility, and they’re almost always full. But the average length of stay is where the figures are heavily skewed,” Carroll said. “The average stay is 2.1 days, but that figure is low because the bulk of those kids who are held in JDC are released in 24 to 48 hours. Of the ones who are out there wreaking havoc in the community, there are 30 to 50 kids that take up the majority of beds throughout the year. If a kid commits a significant felony-level offense, they can sit in our JDC for five or six months.”
But Carroll stressed that rehabilitation exceeds punishment as the overriding factor in holding delinquent youths.
“Our goal is to return productive citizens to the community” after offenders serve their time in the detention facility, he said. “At the end of the day, regardless of what that child did — even in the most serious of cases, when he turns 21 he will be coming back into the community. We have to do our best to rehabilitate them. If we don’t do all we can, we’re all but guaranteeing they’ll come back and produce even more victims.”
Judges see some trends
Judge Glenn Derryberryhas presided over the Allen County Juvenile Court for nearly a dozen years. And while he’s seen the court’s caseload decline in numbers, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
“The numbers show the number of cases are going down, but I don’t feel it,” he said earlier this week. “We seem to be busier now than ever, but that’s because we’re investing more and more time and resources on prevention. Prevention and early detection is a function that we in juvenile court take on that adult court doesn’t have,” the judge said.
“I have to remind the staff sometimes that we are making a difference, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. We do change lives.”
Derryberry said that while overall numbers may be dropping, there is a trend toward a more serious level of crimes being committed by youths in the county.
“My sense is that we’re seeing an increase in sex offenses. And, as a percentage of the total number of cases, I believe we’re seeing more serious offenses overall. Rape is one example; felonious assault is another.
“And shootings. There are a lot of young kids who are gaining access to firearms,” the judge noted. “That’s reflected in the cases we’re seeing — from discharging a weapon into a habitation to carrying a concealed weapon to possession in a school zone. Those are the kind of offenses that get my attention, and they also get the public’s attention,” said Derryberry.
Judge Michael Borer, who has presided over the Putnam County Juvenile Court since 2011, has detected few discernible trends in the delinquency of juveniles in recent years. But he stressed that the “socio-economic climate“ of heavily rural Putnam County cannot be compared on an apples-to-apples basis with larger, more urban populations.
“Numbers don’t always tell the whole story, but I can tell you the issues we have are nowhere near the seriousness or volume of the larger counties,” Borer said.
Unlike Allen County, the juvenile court in Putnam County does not have its own detention center in which to house adjudicated youths. “We can sentence offenders to the Ohio Department of Youth Services, or I can order them into rehabilitation programs at the Juvenile Residential Center in Wood County,” Borer said.
That facility serves a 10-county area in northwest Ohio with a heavy focus on rehabilitation and education.
“The goal is to keep youth closer to their communities and to provide an alternative to commitment to a state facility, the judge said. “The youthfulness of the offender has an impact on how they are handled,” said Borer. “A 10-year-old is different than a 16-year-old. But regardless of age, juvenile courts — much more than adult courts — have rehabilitation at their core.”
Van Wert County Juvenile Court Judge Kevin Taylor said the most frequent type of felony-level crimes that come before his court are burglary or breaking and entering, although the number of sexually-related offenses committed by juveniles are “unfortunately also on the rise,” he said.
Other serious juvenile crimes have ranged from sexting — he transmission via cell phone of photos depicting nudity – to having a weapon at school, the judge noted.
Serious juvenile offender from Van Wert County are sent to the Wood County JRC, while youths ordered to be held for a shorter period of time are sent to the West Central Juvenile Detention Center in Troy.
Van Wert County had 12 youths adjudicated on felony-level charges in 2018. Putnam County had seven delinquency cases, Auglaize County had 12 and Hardin County had such 13 cases last year.
Abuse, neglect, dependency
Kids aren’t the only ones who can find themselves in front of a juvenile court judge. Adults are also subject to the court’s mandates when children are involved.
Borer said if there is an area in which he has seen an “uptick” in cases it is in what is known in juvenile court circles as “AND” cases — an acronym for abuse, neglect and dependency. Such cases involve juveniles “who are not being adequately cared for” by parents or guardians.
“My role is to determine what happen with a child” whose home life has been brought to the attention of authorities ranging from police to prosecutors to children’s services agencies, the judge said.
Taylor also said the number of abuse and neglect cases are on the rise, and echoed the sentiments of his Putnam County counterpart in attributing that increase to a “growing number of parents who are being arrested for opioids or some type of drug abuse situation.”
“We had something like 18 abuse or neglect cases last year and 29 the year before that,” Taylor said. “We’ve got close to 30 this year already.”
Derryberry has also seen an increase.
“Yes, the numbers are up. What we’re seeing more and more is that parents are using their sometimes very limited (financial) resources to buy drugs instead of food or clothes for their kids.”
But the judge stressed that the overwhelming majority of youths in Allen County are law-abiding children who are an asset to their respective communities.
“We have a bunch of good kids here who don’t get enough attention (from the public) and a few bad kids who get too much,” he said.