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Teen Crime: Small Group Plays Big Part : Arrests: 8% of juveniles commit 55% of repeat offenses in O.C. study aimed at identifying potential chronic offenders.


SANTA ANA — Orange County's juvenile justice system is a virtual revolving door for a small percentage of delinquent teen-agers who terrorize innocent victims, strain police and probation resources, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year in court and incarceration expenses, a seven-year study has found.

Probation officers who have been tracking and recording the criminal activities of 6,500 juvenile delinquents since 1985 say a mere 8% commit about 55% of the repeat offenses. Some have been arrested up to 14 times within the last six years, officials said.

As young adults, some 53% of these habitual offenders were arrested for committing other crimes, the study found.

Criminal justice officials identify these repeat criminals as a predatory group whose family and community ties are sundered and who seem to have lost their stake in society.

Researchers have also found that these teen-agers most often have lived in poverty and are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Many were raised--or neglected--by parents who are alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals.

Local probation officials, who described their research as one of the largest studies of juvenile delinquency in the United States, have received some federal assistance to design a program that uses this research to identify potential chronic juvenile delinquents and move them off the repeat-offender track.

Such an intervention plan--using the so-called "predictors of juvenile crime" developed from this research--is in the works. It will probably draw on the resources of county agencies involved in law enforcement, health care, mental health counseling and social services.

Philip Harris, head of the criminal justice department at Temple University, described some of the findings in the Orange County study as consistent with similar research.

"What's unique is that (Orange County) officials have developed a method for predicting who these (problem) kids are and they are developing a plan to work with them before they become habitual offenders," Harris said. "It's a very exciting and promising approach.

The Orange County study was initiated eight years ago by Michael Schumacher, who has headed the county's Probation Department since 1979.

Probation officers tracked 3,304 first-time juvenile offenders from 1985 to 1987 and an additional 3,164 from 1987 to 1989. The activities of some offenders were recorded for up to six years after their first brush with the law.

The two groups were strikingly similar: About 71% of the children did not commit any further offenses and an additional 21% committed a second and, sometimes, a third offense.

But 8% of these juvenile offenders became chronic, repeat offenders. They committed crimes that ranged from shoplifting, car thefts, burglaries and armed robberies to fatal drive-by shootings.

A habitual offender is someone like Rick, a 17-year-old Santa Ana resident who has been arrested at least 11 times by local authorities.

Rick was only 10 when he was "jumped" into a violent Santa Ana street gang, whose trademark tattoos are now etched on his nape and knuckles.

The fifth of eight children, Rick said he clung to gang life because he received little supervision at home and "I wanted to be part of the group."

Before he became a teen-ager, Rick dropped out of school to follow a life of crime.

Rick said he robbed indiscriminately to satisfy a growing habit for marijuana and methamphetamines. A doughnut shop here. A liquor store there. An innocent bystander.

"I didn't like doing it, but the money was there, and when you want it, you go for it," he said unflinchingly. "It's an easier way."

Most of his crimes--even a $1,600 stickup of a Denny's restaurant--went unpunished, Rick said, and even when he was caught and arrested, he would be placed on probation, which he often violated.

Earlier this year, Rick was arrested by deputies as he attempted to break into a Taco Bell in Mission Viejo. He is now serving a one-year sentence at the Youth Guidance Center, a county camp in Santa Ana for juvenile offenders.

While the camp offers a rehabilitation program, it is a long way from an intervention program that would have tagged Rick at 10 or 11 as a potential chronic juvenile criminal.

That is just what probation officials want to do. Probation officials have used the study to come up with predictors for chronic juvenile crime and want to use them to identify a potential repeat offender during their first brush with the law.

About 1,000 juveniles are referred to the Probation Department each month. The department houses 675 to 700 youths at Juvenile Hall in Orange and three other county camps for juvenile offenders. The others are sent home on probation. Probation officers supervise about 5,000 juveniles at any given time, and say some 500 are chronic habitual offenders.

Probation officials found during their research that juvenile delinquents are plagued by a litany of problems ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to serious family problems.

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