Youth crime cases processed by the Juvenile Office for the 39th Judicial Circuit dropped by 11 percent in 2011. Chief Juvenile Officer Keith Parris said his staff stayed busy throughout the year and welcomed the decrease in activity for the second consecutive year.
"Maybe people are becoming more educated," Parris said. "They understand that putting in more services is doing a better job on the front end rather than trying to catch up on the back end."
The office received 803 referrals in 2011, down from 903 in 2010. Delinquency and status referrals totaled 518, down 86 from the preceding year. Lawrence County offered the most significant change, with cases decreasing from 162 to 98.
Parris said it was not apparent why the numbers dropped so much. The aging of some youth, which transfers them under the supervision of the Division of Youth Services, could result in a significant shift in totals.
"Juvenile crime is definitely cyclical," Parris said. "Sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's chaos. It can change on a dime. Last year, juvenile crime around the nation was down about 20 percent."
The children involved in delinquency and status referrals have historically been mostly boys. In 2011, 68 percent were male, up slightly from the previous year but still down from the 74 percent seen in 2010.
Status offenses broke down to 41 cases where the child was beyond parental control, up two from 2010. There were 36 habitually absent from home, down from 60 in 2010. There were 22 cases of truancy.
Abuse and neglect referrals totaled 285, a drop of 14 from the previous two years. Parris said cases in Lawrence and Stone counties increased but the number in Barry County declined.
There were 991 court hearings on child abuse and neglect cases held in 2011, down from 1,040 in 2010. None of the hearings were considered overdue and 99 percent were held on time, according to standards set by the Missouri Supreme Court. The state average is 96 percent.
"The number of cases involving the mental health of the child was up quite a few, from 39 to 47," Parris said. In these cases, the youth are dangerous to themselves.
"There's still a need," Parris said. "It's more a question of being able to afford mental health services. There's not a lot of money out there. By the time we're involved, it's not a good situation."
The types of crime committed by area youth are listed below.
* Simple assaults: 90 (-17 from 2010).
* Substance abuse for drug and alcohol related offenses: 65 (-23).
* Stealing: 77 (-5).
* Property damage: 28 (-28).
* Sexual offense: 32 (-2).
* Peace disturbance: 18 (-3).
* Burglaries: 19 (+3).
* Trespassing: 8 (previously grouped with other offenses).
* Tampering with vehicles: 7 (-7).
* Violation of a valid court order, such as curfew or a positive drug test: 7 (-7).
* Weapons: 3 (+2).
* Other: 18 (-14).
One chronic concern is gang activity in the area. Parris said gang-like behavior was "very quiet." With the recent series of graffiti tagging in Monett having been perpetrated by an adult, Parris was optimistic that minimal problems would continue.
The courts placed 140 new children into foster care in 2011, up eight from 2010 and down two from 2009.
Changes in detention
State-mandated detention assessment began in the past year after years of study. Parris said there was concern that young people were being locked up without proper justification. Now an assessment form is required for each case.
On Jan. 1, the state closed six of its detention areas, ending 71 jobs. Parris said the change directly impacted the 39th Judicial Circuit. Without a local detention facility, the Juvenile Office relies on more distant lock-ups.
Closing the facility in Polk County, part of the 30th Judicial Circuit, left only two choices, Mountain Grove and Camdenton, both two hours away. Jasper County is available, but Parris said that facility is always full.
"It's not cost effective for us to have our own facility," Parris said. "Transportation costs can add up. It will affect who we lock up. We have to find new ways to keep kids safe in the community. We have to find new ways to deal with them. We use alternatives anyway, like ankle monitors. We've had to be resourceful."
Parris credited the federal No Child Left Behind Act as having a positive effect on young people. When he started with the juvenile court, he said offenders often could not read. Seldom does he find that now. He credited poor living conditions, children living with parents who yell at them constantly, or don't provide a stable living environment with a regular place to sleep or reliable meals, as a more likely source of problems.
"Some have called schools 'a pipeline to prison,' because the schools provide referrals to the juvenile office, where non-criminal problems are brought into the system," Parris said. "We've got good schools and knowledgeable principals. Some have put in social workers to combat problems."
Parris was particularly pleased to see legal costs for his office drop by $29,000 in 2011. The cost of providing attorneys to both offenders and parents was escalating expense until contracts were renegotiated and courts appointed individual attorneys for entire counties, reducing the number of attorneys involved. Referrals in 2012 have started at a heavy pace, with 50 abuse and neglect reports in 24 days.
According to the workload study by the Office of State Courts Administrators, the juvenile office should have 7.5 full-time employees, based on its workload. Parris said his office operates with six full-time juvenile officers, one part-time juvenile officer, two intensive probation officers funded by a grant from the Division of Youth Services and a secretary.