A look at how Delaware is combating the trend of young criminals who become lifelong criminals.
That’s the number of people shot on Wilmington streets in 2010. Of those victims, 116, or 81 percent, had a criminal record. Of those 116 victims, 74 percent had their first run-in with the law when they were juveniles, according to a study by the Delaware Criminal Justice Council. Out of the 40 identified shooting suspects, 33 had a criminal history in the state. Nearly all of those with a criminal history – 90 percent – were juveniles at the time of their first arrests.
Delaware Family Court Chief Judge Chandlee Kuhn talked about the issue this week on WHYY’s “Radio Times.” “Students who are disrupted from schooling either by suspension, expulsion or dropout are much more likely to end up in the prison system,” Khun said. She calls it the school-to-prison pipeline. “This has to be feeding into what is a very significant detention rate for juveniles and adults.”
Kuhn says for the 2010-2011 school year, there were 58,846 student suspensions in Delaware, and 132 expulsions. She says Delaware schools are working to address the issue. “Disorderly behavior, what we call fighting behavior, is the vast majority of the lead charges for school arrests.” She says those incidents lead to the bulk of suspensions and expulsions, so schools are looking to replace out-of-school suspensions with in-school suspensions.
School leaders are also working more to examine the root cause of that behavior, rather than just treat the symptoms. “The symptom is kids fighting,” Kuhn says. “But until we look at each individual child and look at that child and say, ‘Okay, what is causing that behavior…’ we will never be able to get through it.” She says kids that experience abuse of any type are 55 percent more likely to commit a delinquent act and 96 percent more likely to commit a violent offense.
Helping at-risk kids
Scott Michels of Jewish Family Services of Delaware works to create programs for adjudicated and at-risk youth. He says there is a lot of potential for success in at-risk young people, but there’s not a lot of funding to help those young people reach that potential.
His group reaches out to those young people with peer-to-peer messages through video and other multimedia tools. The kids would make public service announcements to encourage their peers to stay away from smoking and drugs. “We’re not sure that all the students are practicing what they preach,” Michels says. “But for them to be able to articulate the message and spread it to other youth, we know that they understand the message.” Michels says planting that seed about appropriate behavior could eventually blossom into a path to reach their potential.
As a side benefit, Michels says the students not only picked up the content of the messages they were creating, they also developed life skills from working together to produce the PSAs. Those life skills include teamwork, problem-solving, and even getting acknowledgement for something positive. “I had a student once say, ‘Oh Mr. Michels, I made the newspaper for something good this time,’ which was a big deal.”
Kuhn says one key she’s learned after dealing with hundreds of juveniles in court is that each case must be treated individually. “Unless we treat each and every individual situation and juvenile individually, and provide the appropriate services and consequences – no crime goes without consequence if there’s adjudication – but unless we treat them all individually, we’re never going to know what we have.”