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Sandy Banks

Steering Teens Away From Trouble After School

November 14, 2000|Sandy Banks

He was halfway through his shift at work when the phone call came.

"LAPD," the officer said. "We have your son in custody. Grand theft auto, him and a buddy."

Impossible, he thought as he headed for the station. His son was just 14, didn't even know how to drive. He was supposed to be at home, doing homework, watching TV, playing video games with his friends. Instead, he was waiting behind bars, eyes red from crying, his skinny wrists bearing a bruise from the handcuffs he'd worn.

What went wrong? his father wondered. He's a good kid, good grades, never in trouble before. Sure, he's left alone a lot, to fend for himself while his parents are at work. But he's not the type to steal a car.

The police officer put a hand on his shoulder. It's not the "type," it's the temptations, he told him.

"The keys were left in the car, his backpack was heavy, the buses weren't running. . . . Who knows why? At that moment, it just seemed to him like a good idea.

"Here's a bit of advice," the cop offered. "If I was you, I'd hire a baby-sitter."

*

Child care. It's not the kind of issue that comes to mind when you think of police or crime. And the folks backing "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids: California" are not your usual social service-advocate types.

The group, organized nationally in 1995, opened its California office six months ago, with a roster of more than 100 police chiefs, prosecutors and crime victims intent on lobbying for more resources for teen child care and after-school programs.

In a state that seems intent on extending its tough-on-crime philosophy to younger and younger kids, the group's message is clear: The problem of juvenile crime cannot be solved with tougher laws and more jail time. It is prevention--not punishment--that will keep kids out of trouble.

"It's not that these officers want to stop locking up the bad guys," explains the group's director, Maryann O'Sullivan. "They acknowledge their role in protecting the public safety that way. But they also know that's not going to solve the problem.

"We've tried beefing up the jails, toughening the laws, bringing in new law enforcement technology. . . . It's time we get beyond that."

O'Sullivan sees nothing incongruous about the notion of cops carrying the banner for child care.

"A lot of these guys are motivated by their experiences as street cops, going back to the same addresses again and again to arrest 'good' kids. They figure it's time to intervene, to break the cycle."

Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian, one of the group's advisors, has seen the crime rate among juveniles drop significantly in his city--including a 90% reduction in homicides in the last two years. He credits the city's focus on providing alternative activities.

Two years ago, Pasadena registered the biggest drop in crime among all Los Angeles County's cities. That was just after the city instituted its Police Athletic League after-school program, which provides sports leagues, classes in subjects ranging from arts to computers, and an hour of mandatory homework for teens.

It's no coincidence, Melekian says.

"I think everybody knows that the crime rate spikes between 3 and 6 p.m. Auto thefts, burglaries, vandalism . . . crimes of opportunity committed by kids left to their own devices."

Not bad kids, just bored kids. "You get two or three of them together and what one of them might never do on his own, they convince each other is a great idea. . . . We can lock them up, or we can find a way to harness that energy."

*

Child care for teens has always been a tough issue for parents. It's hard to justify the expense of a baby-sitter for a kid who is almost old enough to drive. So many parents just leave them on their own and hope for the best.

Almost half of eighth-graders are in "self-care" after school, according to the Census Bureau. Surveys show that those kids left home alone are twice as likely to begin smoking, drinking or using drugs.

Melekian understands the challenge faced by parents of teens. His three sons are in college now, "but we certainly had our share of leaving them alone when they were growing up.

"Now, when I talk to them and they tell me about some of the stuff that went on back in high school, I'm shocked. I thought I was an involved, watching parent . . . but the stuff they did when they were left alone makes me realize it's absolutely critical that we have options for our kids after school. We can't count on being lucky anymore."

And we can't aim our arsenal of crime-fighting weapons only at those kids already in trouble. Even good kids make bad choices. If they call them "crimes of opportunity," let's give them opportunities to do something more.

*

Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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