Crime statistics show an unsettling trend toward more violent acts by young people — many involved in gang activity. Law enforcement officials attribute this, in part, to a disturbing generational cycle. That is something Utah needs to address now, and in ways that don’t require the justice system to wait until a crime has been committed.
After a busy summer, officers with the Metro Gang Unit say they have encountered suspects who are the offspring of gang members they dealt with in the early 2000s. “These are their kids now running around,” Unified Police Lt. Brian Lohrke told The Deseret News.
It’s not surprising that a proclivity toward criminal behavior may fall to a child in a family in which such behavior is normal, and that presents a challenge to those in the juvenile justice and education systems who have been working hard to intervene on behalf of at-risk kids. As Lohrke said, what can be done to reverse the trend is the “magic question.”
Recently compiled crime statistics for 2017 show it’s a question that needs to be answered. Of the 80 homicides in Utah last year, more than a quarter of the victims were under 21 years old, as were 16 of those accused of murder. Several murder and violent assault cases were tied to juveniles with likely gang ties.
Examples last summer included a 17-year-old killed during a drive-by shooting in Magna, for which another 17-year-old was arrested; the deaths of a man and a woman in Kearns, killed when their car was struck by a vehicle in which four gang members, ages 17-24, were fleeing after another drive-by shooting; and a 14-year-old Salt Lake City boy who died after he was struck by a bullet while sitting in the back of a pickup as members of two rival gangs confronted each other.
These and other cases caused alarm throughout Salt Lake County, erupting in a heated public forum at Kearns High School last summer as people demanded answers.
While there are no easy or immediate solutions, policies and resources could be better focused on prevention. Rates of juvenile recidivism are high, suggesting the need to examine the effectiveness of the juvenile detention system. Police say that, for kids on a criminal path, time in detention is a rite of passage in which they meet and mingle with others similarly disposed.
During last summer’s spate of violent crime by young offenders, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill pointedly asked whether the juvenile justice system “is proportionately responsive to deter criminal behavior.”
It would seem the answer is no.
In recent decades, overall juvenile crime policy in Utah has cycled back and forth. In 1996, lawmakers passed the Serious Youth Offender Act, allowing courts to more easily charge juveniles in adult court as part of a “tough on crime” approach to gangs. In recent years, that mindset has changed, with more cases of kids charged with serious crimes being handled in the juvenile system.
Getting tough wasn’t necessarily the best approach. The focus now should be on preventing early offenders from becoming repeat offenders.
When a juvenile crime suspect comes from a family with a lineage of criminal involvement, there’s little the system can do until that child formally enters that system as a defendant, which may be too late. But there are programs run by schools and other community-based institutions that seek to intervene early in the lives of at-risk children, and those programs deserve support.
The state should redouble its efforts to combat intergenerational poverty, particularly through school programs. State statistics show 27 percent of impoverished youth ages 10-17 end up in the juvenile justice system.
In addition, a review of current procedures in that system may be warranted to make sure it is doing all it can to steer vulnerable kids onto an alternative path.