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Growth Spurt in Juvenile Crime : Law Enforcement Needs More Help From Parents and Schools

April 21, 1996

The dramatic increase in violent crime by juveniles in Orange County last year is disquieting news that demands a response by parents, schools and others worried by the possibility that the numbers will get worse.

The Juvenile Division of the Orange County district attorney's office said in its annual report, issued last month, that aggravated assaults by young people in the county increased by 81% over the 1994 figures. Aggravated assaults include attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

Also alarming was the 32% increase in charges of robbery. Although there was a welcome decline in the number of juveniles charged with murder, it did little to lessen the chill caused by the other statistics.

Worries that juvenile crime is likely to get worse are commonplace across the United States. A Dutch tourist was killed in Miami, allegedly by two 16-year-old boys. In New York, a 15-year-old trying to steal a woman's earrings allegedly was responsible for shoving her to her death beneath a subway car.

In Orange County last year, a 14-year-old was murdered in a dispute over a stereo system. His alleged assailants were under 18.

There always have been youngsters who got into trouble, but the dramatic growth in guns, drugs and gangs in recent years has taken the violence to another level. Fistfights and beatings were bad enough; shootings are likely to be far worse.

The district attorney's office estimated that from 1990 through the end of last year the number of gangs in Orange County increased from 153 to 348, with gang membership soaring from 10,000 to more than 21,000. A projected increase in the number of juveniles in the county in the years ahead has prompted law enforcement officials to warn that juvenile violence is likely to become even more of a problem.

Police, prosecutors and Probation Department officials have launched a promising anti-gang program and are trying to identify youngsters most likely to keep committing crimes. But they need help.

Parents and schools need to increase their efforts to stop youngsters from dropping out. Lack of an education too often closes so many doors that juveniles feel they have no alternatives to crime. Churches that reach out to youngsters with special ministries and provide after-school activities are also valuable resources.

Prosecutors are sending more Orange County juveniles to jail than in the past. But that is no guarantee that an offender will reform. The community clearly is better off reaching youngsters before they commit crimes or at least before their crimes are violent.

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