Programs for juvenile offenders grow along with the population |

Programs for juvenile offenders grow along with the population

by Sharon Carter

A few years ago, kids were routinely sent to Nevada youth training centers in Elko and Caliente or camps like Spring Mountain in Clark County and China Spring in Douglas County for things like running away from home or being truant from school.

The infractions were “status crimes,” illegal only because the offenders were under 18.

“We used to threaten kids who were truants and wanted to quit school with Elko,” said Bruce Kennedy, chief of juvenile parole for the state of Nevada for the past four years.

“We’d say, ‘You’re going to graduate (from high school), you can do it in your hometown with your friends or you can do it in Elko.'”

Kennedy, 50, has spent 25 years working in juvenile justice including more than five years as director of the state training center in Elko. The Office of Juvenile Paroles is a part of the division of Child and Family Services. It is responsible for after-care of kids coming out of state institutions and for kids coming into Nevada who have been adjudicated elsewhere and require supervision. The office is also responsible for kids who have been committed to the state with mental health problems and can’t function at state correctional institutions.

More hardcore. “The state’s population grew while the number of beds (in the juvenile facilities) remained the same, so the kids that were sent became more hardcore,” Kennedy said.

He said with the dramatic increase in the number of people needing its services, the juvenile system has evolved into a series of graduated programs of remediation and punishment – each program more strict and each punishment more severe than the one before.

Kennedy, who is based in Las Vegas, said the state now gets the children local communities can’t deal with.

And while violent crimes committed by children are often sensationalized in the media, Kennedy said, the actual numbers are down.

He said about 12 percent of the kids his office deals with are returning offenders.

Changing culture. “As the population grows, the actual percentage of juveniles committing serious crimes might be holding,” he said. “We may notice it more because the country and the world are more connected and because we’re going from a rural atmosphere to more urban.

“In rural areas, people tend to know everyone – if Johnny does something wrong, the neighbors will tell Mom and Dad. In the city, people often don’t know their neighbors. The kids don’t relate to the people next door – they’re just strangers the kids can burglarize. Usually it’s between the hours of 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., after school and before their parent or parents come home from work.

“What we’ve found is, the more you tie kids into their crimes and the more they understand their victims and the effects of their crimes – on their communities and even on their own families – the less the chance they’ll do it again.”

He said a big part of the solution for many juvenile offenders and their families is in what he calls “after care.”

Cutting edge. As one of four states chosen by Congress to run an intensive after care program, Kennedy said Nevada is on the forefront as a leader in juvenile justice.

“People my age who played war and went to Vietnam often remember boot camp as a great way to learn discipline. What we forgot was that we still had two or four more years in the system after camp. The kids (who were sent to state or county camps) had about eight months and were sent back without much after care.

“Not too many people have wanted to put much money into these kids, they’re not a liked population. What was so often forgotten was that these kids were coming back to their communities. The communities had a stake in how they wanted the kids to be when they came back. What we’ve found is the solution is in a cooperative effort with the community, working with the kids and their families.”

The numbers. At any given time, Kennedy said, his division has a caseload of about 1,000 to 1,500 kids. According to the Nevada Division of Education, Nevada’s overall student population for the 1998-99 school year is 311,063. And with 203,777 students in its school district, Clark County has nearly two-thirds of the state’s student population. That means that fewer than 1 percent of the state’s kids are in serious trouble at any given time.

The juvenile system doesn’t deal with young offenders who are certified as adults or those over 18.

And although the system deals with children as young as eight and nine, Kennedy said the kids committed to state institutions have to be at least 12 years old.

“We don’t normally see younger kids at the youth training centers,” he said. “We find alternative programs for those kids. We keep them in their communities.”

Locks and fences. Another step in youth corrections will soon be taken in Southern Nevada with the construction of a locked juvenile facility with fences, Kennedy said.

“The existing facilities are ‘staff secure,’ which means kids can just walk away, they’re not really locked in,” he said.

Currently, he said, the state contracts with a private company in Texas, the Corrections Corporation of America, to deal with the six or eight hardcore, “very serious” kids the Nevada system can’t handle each year.

“It’s not and has never been a doomsday scenario by any means,” Kennedy said. “We have good people working in the system who care deeply about the kids. They make it work.

“I run into adults every day – on the street, at Albertsons, dropping by the office – who say, ‘Remember me? I thought you’d like to know I turned out OK.'”

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