June 11th 2013
Recently I attended a meeting of the State of New York Police Juvenile Officers Association. After speaking with several Juvenile Officers, it was apparent that many departments across the state were cutting back or even eliminating their resources allocated for dealing with juveniles. Different reasons were given why. Some departments believed youth programs are ineffective. Others felt there was no longer a need. The majority however were dealing with a much bigger issue: lack of funding. These are tragic mistakes which will cost everyone much more in the long run.
It has been said by some that juvenile programs are ineffective. Programs like DARE and GREAT don’t work. This is completely false. For almost a decade now I have worked with the kids in my jurisdiction. In 2004, I was given the opportunity to become a DARE Officer (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) and in 2008 was trained to teach GREAT as well (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. During this time I have had many students come to me for help with their problems. Some had run away from home. Others, especially in middle school, have had problems fitting in and adjusting to this awkward stage in their lives. Over my career several students have confided in me about thoughts of committing suicide. Every child who has ever come to me in need has always been given the attention and help to deal with their issues. These children know they can trust us. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student you helped turn the page from that dark moment in their lives and excel. I can only imagine how many other officers around the country who have experienced this and how many students have been helped. These programs work in ways that are not measurable but are definitely felt by many.
Recently I heard someone say that all cops want to do is lock up kids. School Resource Officers are just direct pipelines for juveniles to go from the schools to the jails. Nothing is further from the truth. Contrary to what some may believe, we are here to help kids, not lock them up. On many occasions officers try to do everything they can to avoid having to charge a juvenile with a crime. In 2005, I was trained and certified as a juvenile officer. The first lesson instilled in me was the Juvenile Justice System has been designed to be rehabilitative and not punitive. The New York State Family Court has set policies and procedures to ensure that children are given every opportunity to receive the help and resources needed to correct negative behavior. Kids are not locked away and the key thrown away. In Westchester County, kids who are having problems at home, not attending school and other non-criminal matters are referred to probation. Probation will work with the schools, law enforcement, parents and other agencies to provide the help and services required for a child in need, whether it is counseling or finding a way to help a juvenile he held more accountable for their actions. Many times this behavior is corrected by just making the parents aware and having them become more involved in a child’s life. We are here to help children, not put them in jail. Cops do not go out of their way to lock up adolescents.
Criminal matters involving juveniles in my jurisdiction are handled by the Westchester County Attorney’s Office. The attorney’s office uses the same approach as probation. Their main objective is to help a child, not to send them to jail. Juveniles involved in criminal offenses will appear in front of a Family Court Judge. The child will be appointed a Law Guardian who will advocate on their behalf. This is not like a defense attorney; the law guardian is not trying to “get the kid off”. The Judge, Law Guardian, Assistant County Attorney, probation and parents will all work together to find the best solution to correct the negative behavior. Incarceration is used as the last resort in most matters and contingent on the severity of the act committed. From past experiences, the courts are willing to work with everyone involved to provide a successful outcome.
Another reason given for departments cutting juvenile programs is a belief they are no longer needed. The crime rate among juveniles in some jurisdictions has decreased over the years and therefore the programs are no longer required. However, the opposite is true. This is actual proof the programs are working and are still necessary. Any officer who works with kids can tell you our prime mission is to try and keep kids from getting into trouble in the first place. This is accomplished by interacting and being positive role models in their lives. Programs such as DARE, GREAT, after school and summer youth academies as well as Police Athletic Leagues all play an important role in achieving this goal. Not only do these programs help keep youth busy and out of trouble, but also build healthy relationships between the kids and the cops. They learn that we are human and approachable. The kids enjoy being associated with the programs and feel they are a part of something important. Many will think twice before making a poor decision and having to face the officers they had befriended from these programs. If the juvenile crime rate has decreased in a jurisdiction, it may be due to these programs. These programs are extremely effective.
One unfortunate reason I was told many departments are cutting back on juvenile programs was lack of funding and budget cuts. Due to the economy, many departments have had to do more with less. Special programs are being eliminated and officers reassigned to patrol duties to make up for financial shortfalls an agency may be experiencing. Although I understand why, I truly feel this is a mistake. Without juvenile programs and officers working with the youth in the community, crime rates have the potential to rise. I have heard countless stories of youths who started getting into trouble over minor incidents yet the negative behavior was never corrected. Kids as they mature, naturally want to test their boundaries. When negative behavior occurs, it is our responsibilities as adults to push back and establish that boundary. If a child does not have anyone in their lives to push back, they assume the behavior is acceptable and continue their actions until they commit a crime and are arrested and charged as adults. I have heard many stories in my career about youths who started out in their middle school years stealing bicycles or other objects but never got in trouble or held accountable for their actions. By the time they were sixteen, they were robbing and beating people late at night on the streets. When they were arrested, people would ask how this could have happened. If the behavior was addressed and rectified years earlier, maybe this all could have been avoided. Without juvenile officers and programs directed towards our youth, crime rates have the potential to rise and in the long run cost a municipality more financially than saved by eliminating these programs.
Many police agencies are cutting back on their juvenile programs. Some say it is because they are ineffective. Others feel there is no longer a need. Many municipalities however are going through tough economic times and are unable to fund these programs. Sadly, this is an issue that should not be cut and will only cost us all more in the future.