Juvenile case load decreases 65 percent since 2007

Published 9:47 pm Monday, February 24, 2014

If the Dallas County District Court’s probation caseload is any indication, juvenile crime is decreasing in Dallas County

During the 2007 fiscal year — running from October 2006 to September 2007 — 383 juveniles were on probation. The most recent statistics — fiscal year 2013 — show the court’s caseload dropping to 128 juveniles on probation per year. The decrease represents a 65-percent drop.

The overall number of juvenile petitions has decreased at a similar rate.

The most obvious manifestation of the decrease is the length of juvenile court, District Judge Bob Armstrong said.

“Juvenile court use to take all day,” District Judge Bob Armstrong said. “Now we are able to have it every other week and we only have eight cases. Looking at the statistics, it’s almost nothing compared to what it was.”

Armstrong and other Dallas County officials attribute the decrease to programs that focus on changing the mindset of juveniles and parents in an attempt to prevent repeat offenders.

Juveniles are sentenced in a number of different ways. For less severe cases, offenders are sentenced to Camp Perry Varner Education and Treatment Facility.

Perry Varner sits adjacent to the jail and juvenile detention center. Inside are dozens of beds for children and teens from a 9-county area.

Perry Varner’s director Marcus Hannah said most offenders are victims of his or her environment, but making a change can be difficult.

“One of the major issues that we try to deal with is self esteem, because about 80 percent of the crimes are related to the environment and not the actual kid themselves,” Hannah said. “A juvenile might be a good kid, but peer pressure causes them to commit crimes. We have to get them to start believing in themselves and start making their own decisions.”

Perry Varner has a 2.5 percent recidivism rate, which translates into about 103 kids returning to Perry Varner per year, Hannah said.

Another option for low risk offenders is teen court, Armstrong said.

“One of the unique things about it is that the students impose the punishment,” Armstrong said. “They decide what the punishment is going to be for low risk cases where the students have already admitted to messing up. The experience of going before your peers is the worst part of it.”

Punishments can include small fines, paper writing, or community service.

Armstrong also touts The Dallas County Safe Schools Challenge as an effective program. The challenge is a competition among schools in Dallas County for the least amount of juvenile crime in a year. The program started in 2006 after several fights in Dallas County schools, Armstrong said.

“It had gotten so bad and I organized an assembly to basically just chew them out,” he said. “But, I knew that just chewing them out wouldn’t do a whole lot to change the behavior.”

Though programs may help to lower juvenile crime, Hannah said the decrease can’t continue without the entire community getting involved.

“One of the keys things is that juvenile crime isn’t just a court issue or a law enforcement issue,” Hannah said. “It affects everyone in Dallas County. It is all of our duty to help curb violent crime and put our children on the right path.”