More than 80 community members concerned with reducing the crime rates among juveniles gathered in Lafayette on Wednesday for a panel discussion about ways to approach young people as they begin to get in trouble at school or with the law.
Efforts to rethink the way juvenile crime is addressed already are being implemented in Lafayette Parish, where authorities often divert young offenders to social services and behavioral treatment instead of subjecting them to harsh punishment.
Children under 17 who are accused of crimes are sent to the parish Juvenile Assessment Center and evaluated for those services rather than being sent to detention centers, an effort University of Louisiana at Lafayette criminal justice professor Jessie Lee White said is an effective way to address juvenile crimes.
Rehabilitation for juveniles addresses specific needs and gives treatment to juveniles who need it, giving them a “realistic option for surviving in society without becoming a criminal,” White said.
But a bigger issue is reaching children before they reach that point, as teenagers who engage in crime are often subjected to environments that trap them in a cycle of potential criminal behavior.
“There are societal barriers out there,” White said.
The problem is especially poignant in Lafayette’s poorer neighborhoods, where an increase in drug activity is contributing to a major increase in gun violence, interim Lafayette Police Chief Reggie Thomas said.
Homicide rates are at a 30-year high as police grapple with the influx of drugs, along with an increased amount of guns and stolen guns found among the public. Along with a homicide rate that’s increased over the past three years, from six in 2013 to 20 in 2015, the number of aggravated shootings is up about 40 percent, Thomas said.
“All these murders that you’re hearing about, these murders are based upon street-level drugs,” Thomas said.
Tracy Davenport, an assistant district attorney with the juvenile justice section of the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors are subjected to a “balancing act” when addressing juvenile crimes.
They must consider the nature of the offense along with the young person’s circumstances and try to “come up with a fair and consistent system of graduated sanctions that address both the needs of the child and the issue of community safety,” Davenport said.
Keeping children in school is an important way to keep them on the proper path, said Stephen Fruge, supervisor of child welfare and attendance with the Lafayette Parish school system.
The school system gets involved when a student has five absences without excuses, and the student is brought to truancy court. But Fruge said parental involvement is key in addressing bad behaviors, especially since school system social workers have been reduced in number by more than half, from 40 to 18, because of budget issues.
“Parents just need to get involved in the school system,” Fruge said. “The more they’re involved, the better we can help as a school system.”
Eleven school-resource officers work for the Lafayette Police Department, but they only deal with law-enforcement issues among students.
Joshua Edmond, who’s involved with the 360 Collective and the Police Department’s community relations committee, said matching youth with people who already have been down the wrong path can help them, providing a mentor-like relationship.
He said, too, that the entire community must step up to lead children toward successful pathways.
“We all must come together on the same page and bridge the gap,” Edmond said.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.