Juvenile Crime: The view from the bench

Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Robert Brutinel handles two-thirds of all juvenile court cases and dependency cases so he has a special insight into juvenile crime in the county.

Recently, Youth Count, a program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, identified specific problem areas of the Verde Valley when it gathered statistics on juvenile crime.

Those figures show that the number of kids committing crimes is fewer, but those kids are committing more crimes.

There is a general increase in criminal activity among teens in the lower Verde Valley.

The overall figures show that 29 percent of all juvenile crime involves substance abuse and 28 percent represents crimes against property.

That does not surprise the judge. Brutinel says during the past 10 years, drugs and alcohol have been the biggest offenses. He says, "Kids want to experiment, and when they get drunk, they do stupid things."

Though methamphetamine is a growing problem, Brutinel believes juveniles are more likely to use marijuana. Meth is a bigger concern for their parents, he says. Meth, in itself, appears to be responsible for the dramatic spike in need for foster care, he says.

Brutinel says 70 percent of juveniles break the law one time and never return to court. He maintains that "most are smart enough that they will never come back." And, for that, he believes the courts do a tremendous job. The juvenile court judge says for a first-time offense such as shoplifting, for example, the court "should give them consequences, but not a criminal record."

Thirty percent of juveniles will commit additional crimes. Last year, Yavapai County had 2,400 referrals from 900 separate petitions. But only a fraction, 36 young people, went to state juvenile detention last year from Yavapai County.

Everyone knows that the juvenile justice system has gotten tougher. Brutinel says beginning in 1996 with the Juvenile Justice Initiative, commonly known as "Three Strikes, You're Out," teens have gotten the message that there is a steep price to pay for repeat offenses.

He says it is important to keep responsibility at the forefront. "Kids are going to make mistakes, they need to have appropriate consequences. You have to forgive them and hope they become productive citizens."

The judge says it is important to remember that we are dealing with children. "Some you have to treat more harshly, some have to go to prison. But most are decent kids. It is important not to lose sight of that. They are children now who will be our future."

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