St. Simons Island, Ga. — While the public is demanding harsher penalties for juvenile crime, the actual number of crimes committed by juveniles per year is no longer on the increase.
Latest data show juvenile crimes peaked in 1975 and have remained more or less level since then, according to the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. And contrary to public perceptions, violent crimes make up only about 5 percent of the juvenile crime over the past seven years, according to these data.
But the leveling off of reported juvenile offenses is not attributed by experts to harsher punishment or to success in prevention or rehabilitation programs for young offenders. It is attributed primarily to a leveling off of the number of youths aged 10 to 17 in the US population.
And the leveling off can be compared to a plateau at the top of a mountain. There is still a ''mountain'' of juvenile crime - some 1.3 million offenses each year which come before a juvenile or family court.
In other words, things are not getting any better, but neither are they getting any worse.
But public pressure to act against juvenile offenders is nonetheless growing. There is particular concern about those youths who repeatedly break the law and swell crime figures. The public seems divided on how best to handle them.
One side wants to lock up juvenile offenders; the other side wants to put them in other kinds of programs, such as group homes, closely supervised probation, or in remedial education or job training. The solution, says Judge Aaron Cohn, president-elect of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Courts, probably lies ''somewhere in between.''
New York and Georgia, among other states, have passed harsher laws for dealing with more serious offenders. Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, among others, have turned increased attention to extra-secure lockups for their most serious juvenile offenders, says Hunter Hurst, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice, the research division that compiles the annual delinquency data cited above.
Now some legislators and judges are concerned that this get-tough trend is coming at the wrong time (when offenses are not increasing) and may make things worse.
''There is a backlash due to the violent (juvenile) offender,'' says Judge Cohn.
''We're caught in a philosophical crunch,'' he said in an interview during a meeting here of legislators, judges, and other experts on juvenile delinquency.
Judge Cohn says most youths can be rehabilitated without locking them up. Most juvenile offenders, he says, come before his court only once. The Columbus, Ga., judge has helped initiate alternative programs for treating juvenile offenders in his area.
Over the past 10 years the number of youths locked up for so-called ''status'' offenses has declined from about 250,000 to about 30,000 a year, according to Charles Lauer, acting director of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, a part of the US Department of Justice. Status offenses include running away from home, truancy, and unruly behavior, all of which would not be a crime if committed by an adult.
But as many as 500,000 juveniles still spend some time each year in an adult lockup, says Mr. Lauer. Most states are just beginning to curtail this practice, he said here.
One of the most pressing issues now, according to Lauer, is what to do with the repeat violent offender. A study of Ohio delinquents showed that in a group of about 800 offenders, some 200 had committed an average of six offenses each.
Federal funding for programs dealing with juvenile offenders has dropped from about $270 million two years ago to about $70 million this year and may even be wiped out entirely, depending on final action on the budget, Lauer said. Congress wants some funding, the White House does not, he explained.
Reduced federal funding could force states to reopen the still-existing juvenile institutions many states have abandoned in favor of less restrictive programs, says Robert C. Room, chairman of the department of criminal justice at Georgia State University. With less money, states might also overload juvenile probation officers and make fewer health and safety inspections of juvenile facilities, he said.