Juvenile crime down

Haven’t had to replace a smashed mailbox recently?

There’s a good reason — juvenile crime in Island County is on the decline.

In 2004, the Island County Sheriff’s office arrested 387 individuals aged 17 or younger, down from 419 in 2002.

Sheriff Mike Hawley and Juvenile Court Administrator Mike Merringer credit the decrease in crime to the increase in juvenile treatment, prevention programs and community awareness.

And it’s not just juvenile crime that seems to be diminishing.

“We’ve seen that, across the board, not only juvenile justice but virtually every crime rate has dropped over the years,” Hawley said. “There are a lot of reasons for it and they’re all intertwined.”

The prevalence of community awareness of crime, prevention and social programs has been a boon to law enforcement, reducing and in some cases preventing juvenile offenses.

Merringer said several county programs are having a positive effect on youth. The Alternative to Detention work crew, funded by $10,000 from the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, allows juveniles who want to avoid time in detention to participate on a work crew under supervision from a corrections officer. Merringer said much of the improved landscaping around the Island County government campus in Coupeville has been done by juvenile work crews.

county programs

The state also funds five other court programs: The Community Juvenile Accountability Act A.R.T. program, Functional Family Therapy, Special Sex Offender Disposition Alternative, Chemical Dependency Disposition Alternative and the Drug Court.

The A.R.T. program stands for “anger-replacement training.” Juvenile offenders attend the 10-week program three times per week for an hour and a half. The course includes “pro-social skills training, anger control and moral reasoning.” Social Skills training is comprised of a series of 10 constructive skills that are positive alternatives to aggressive responses. Anger control training is designed to teach youth an outlet for their anger other than aggression by teaching the skills necessary to recognize and control their anger.

Family intervention is the main goal of the family therapy program. Trained therapists travel to meet with the “most difficult” families to work on family dynamics, Merringer said. The program works in phases, from engaging youth and families, to motivating change, assessing relationships, changing behavior and finally, guiding a family’s individual needs.

For juvenile sex offenders, the disposition alternative program allows those amenable to treatment to be placed on probation for two years and work with sex-offender therapists.

In lieu of being incarcerated, juveniles with chemical dependency issues can also be placed on probation so long as they are enrolled in intensive inpatient or outpatient treatment services in the county.

Merringer said the majority of state funds are dedicated to the county’s drug court. The program began about four years ago after the the juvenile court system asked for and received funding from the county commissioners. Probation counselor Channing Gredvig spearheaded the program, which allows juvenile offenders who have been diagnosed with a substance abuse problem and are eligible for the disposition alternative program to meet with and develop a partnership between their treatment provider, prosecutor, defense counsel, probation counselor, and the judge.

Every two weeks, juveniles in the program are required to come to court. Prior to the court date, the drug court team reviews each juvenile’s case to check on his or her performance at school, at home and in treatment. The team also checks to see if there have been any relapses into drug or alcohol use and, if so, what treatment options should be enforced.

“They really develop a nice relationship with the drug court team,” Merringer said. “It becomes more of a wrap-around service where relationships are built.”

If juveniles in the program are sober for six months prior to their “graduation” date, any charges against them are dismissed. Graduates of the program are honored with a celebration that includes cake, balloons and congratulations from the drug court team members.

“Another tool we’re utilizing that we were not prior to 1997 is the risk assessment program,” Merringer added.

The program is an interview tool given to families and kids that can determine a youth’s risk to re-offend. If the risk assessment finds that there is a risk of reoffending, it allows families and the juvenile court system to focus their resources. Merringer said the risk assessment acts as a road map to direct families to the best resources for helping youth.

“It’s a great way for juveniles and families to address problems,” Merringer said, adding that the programs “have had quite a bit of impact . . . Washington state is seen by other states as a real innovator in a lot of the problems we’re dealing with in juvenile justice right now.”

Older people do less crime

While prevention and county services have, to some degree, curbed juvenile crime, one factor in declining crime rates is simply age.

“Probably the biggest uncontrolled factor is pure, plain demographics,” Hawley said. “We’re aging as society and you’ve got this huge bubble of people entering their golden years. When you have fewer people in their ‘crime-committing’ years, it’s going to skew the statistics.”

According to Island County Health Department statistics, 14.3 percent of county residents are over 65 years old, 3 percent higher than the state average of 11.2 percent. Juveniles make up 25 percent of Island County’s population.

“We have different types of issues now, things that we’re doing today we would never have done 10 years ago,” Hawley added.

The advanced age of many county residents can make them more vulnerable to crime, hence the creation of the adult protective services program and a greater focus on mental health issues.

Overall, Hawley believes the Sheriff’s Office has made a lot of progress in lowering the juvenile crime rate through prevention and social programs and focusing on working together with the community.

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