A panel of experts in the field of juvenile crime gathered Tuesday evening at the Pine Bluff Convention Center for an open discussion with members of the community on how best to deal with the problem.

A panel of experts in the field of juvenile crime gathered Tuesday evening at the Pine Bluff Convention Center for an open discussion with members of the community on how best to deal with the problem.

“The Prevention, Intervention and Treatment of Youth Crime: Solutions that Work” was jointly sponsored by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the 6th Division Circuit Court of Judge Earnest E. Brown Jr.

“What is the current status of juvenile justice in this community and where do we go from here?” moderator Paul D. Kelly, senior policy analyst with AACF, asked as the panel began their discussion.

Brown said that there was both reason for optimism as well as reason for real concern when looking at area juvenile crime trends.

“It is a good-news and bad-news scenario,” Brown said. “The good news is that in 2008 when I took office there were a lot of juvenile break-ins and thefts but they have been dramatically reduced. There were 60 break-ins in 2008 and that is down to 13 now. There were 122 thefts in 2008 and that is down to 31 now. We were able to accomplish this in part through teen court and mentoring. The bad news is that in that same period of time battery crimes, which are crimes against persons, and gun crimes have gone up.”

Levi Thomas, executive director of United Family Services, said that while some progress is being made, more needs to be done.

“We have a sense of urgency in the community,” Thomas said. “Progress is being made with more input from the community but what we are dealing with is quite unique. It is an evolutionary process. Just as the problem did not develop overnight it will not be solved overnight. We must break the vicious cycles that have developed over the past two decades or so.”

District 16 State Rep. James Word said he has been working to introduce legislation to benefit young people and by extension the community.

“I am working very hard to develop legislation to aid youth in the community,” Word said. “It is important that parents and all citizens get involved in this. Youth are influenced by peer pressure and we have to make sure youth are protected. We need to develop meaningful legislation for the treatment and prevention of youth crime. In the 89th General Assembly I will introduce legislation beneficial to the youth of Arkansas.”

Ron Angel, director of the Division of Youth Services of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, laid a high percentage of the blame for youth crime at the feet of parents.

“The No. 1 problem in this community as well as others is that we have a parenting problem,” Angel said. “Kids are not being given the right message by their parents. There is a structure to DYS and when kids come into it they get that, they get attention and they get their education because we send them to school. But when they leave us they go back home and back to the same kids they were with before. Four schools in Jefferson County are in the top-five committing schools to DYS. That is a problem. We have 34 kids committed from four schools in Jefferson County.”

Doris Rice, Youth Advocate Program coordinator with the 6th Division Circuit Court, said her program has been effective in its three years of existence.

“The YAP program has reduced commitments to DYS,” Rice said. “We are working to keep children in the community and hopefully, redirect their bad behavior. We have advocates who work very hard to get this done. We have saved the state many dollars.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. said the city is working hard to foster a positive relationship between young people and law enforcement.

“I have asked public safety to focus on prevention and intervention for youth,” Redus said. “The police department has youth programs including DARE, the three-day baseball camp over spring break and the basketball camp. The more the youth are comfortable with authority, the more they will communicate with them. We are putting things in place to deal with juvenile issues. We must educate, inform and build character in our youth to make the community successful.”

Justice of the Peace Paul Jones, who also works as a school resource officer in the Watson Chapel School District, agreed that a lack of effective parenting was a central issue in the discussion over youth crime.

“I have had to stay 30 minutes to an hour after the end of a game at school to wait with a student whose parent is late picking them up,” Jones said. “There is also a lot of peer pressure. When something negative happens in the community some of the students glorify it. They praise people who shoot somebody.”

S. Kyle Hunter, prosecuting attorney for Jefferson and Lincoln counties, said that as a parent he knows that raising a child is difficult.

“I’m a parent of five and a grandparent and I know that parenting can be frustrating,” Hunter said. “Children want to know that their parents care. Juvenile court holds children accountable but also gives them help. The system gives children a chance to have an opportunity at a future that does not include adult court. From a prosecutor’s perspective, we believe opportunities should be given to young people to keep them out of adult court. The problem we have is children committing crimes. I know that the answer begins at home, in the community and at church. That is the critical first step.”

Why is more not done?

Kelly next asked the panelists why they thought more was not being done to implement programs that have already been shown to be successful in preventing juvenile crime.

“Why do you think in spite of the evidence of what works we are not implementing these ideas?” Kelly said.

Thomas blamed funding issues for the delay.

“There is a disproportionate amount of minority confinement,” Thomas said. “Funding doesn’t always follow the problem.”

Redus also blamed a lack of resources.

“There is a lack of resources and it requires a dedicated staff of people that will listen to what the youth are saying,” Redus said. “The parents have a responsibility but the school system and the community also have a responsibility.”

Angel said that communities should not overly rely upon state funding in coming up with effective juvenile crime programs.

“The state has certain limited resources and you can’t just look at money,” Angel said. “You have to look at the community. Go to your churches and take troubled youth under your wing. Mentoring is critical. We’ll do what we can to help but the community will solve the problem.”

Thomas said that people often talk about the community coming together to deal with the issue of juvenile crime but that more is required.

A need for action

Kelly said that there is a real need for the implementation of drug treatment and family support programs in communities to effectively handle juveniles who are released from DYS back to their communities.

“After school and summer programs reduce juvenile crime and teen pregnancy,” Kelly said. “These programs inspire children to learn.”

“Kids spend 85 percent of their metabolic energy on brain development so we must nurture them,” Kelly said. “We are all in this together.”