US-Mexico cooperation on juvenile crime. ... AND ON THE RIO GRANDE

Luis Torres is 17, his friend Sergio Espino is only 13, but already the two Mexicans have spent six months incarcerated in Texas for crimes committed on the northern side of the United States-Mexico border. Their detention - in a low-security reform school here in west Texas specializing in the needs of young Hispanic offenders - is part of a get-tough, get-smart approach to juvenile delinquency along the border.

The ``get tough'' portion of the approach means that fewer Mexican juveniles caught in the US shoplifting a bicycle, like Luis, or breaking into a house, like Sergio, are simply being escorted to the middle of the international bridge to return home, as was the long-honored tradition. That tradition only encouraged repeat performances.

The ``get smart'' part of the new policy includes tighter coordination between juvenile specialists on the two sides of the border. Some juvenile agencies on the US side are hiring caseworkers to work in Mexican border cities, and Mexican probation officers are taking under their wings more juveniles whose crimes were committed in the US.

With the population of Mexico's border states burgeoning, and with the temptations of the comparatively wealthy US border cities shining ever brighter for Mexico's unemployed youths, officials from both sides say only increased cooperation will stem juvenile crime. The approach is also being used for abused and abandoned children.

``The time is ripe for this new emphasis,'' says Mario Garza, assistant superintendent of Pyote's West Texas Children's Home, who has long been active in juvenile work on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Juvenile experts in Texas say such programs are reducing the number of repeat juvenile offenders appearing in US courts. With more of them being returned to Mexican authorities, the rate of incarceration has been reduced, saving tax dollars on the US side.

In 1987, for example, Texas spent $116,000 on Border Children Justice programs in four border counties: Cameron (Brownsville), Webb (Laredo), Val Verde, and El Paso. Expenses include salary assistance for Mexicans who conduct home visits to verify that juveniles apprehended in the US have a place to return to, and that probation and other services will be provided.

In addition to handling hundreds of juveniles apprehended for minor infractions, the four programs also placed with Mexican authorities 55 juveniles whose crimes would have normally landed them in Texas juvenile correctional facilities.

One result: an estimated $1.25 million savings in incarceration costs to Texas taxpayers. Also, officials on this side of the border hope that, by receiving assistance in familiar surroundings, more Mexican juveniles will have a better chance of leading productive and law-abiding lives.

``We are looking at the cost-saving aspects [for Texas] of this program, of course,'' says Virginia Saenz, program specialist with the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. ``But first and foremost we are seeking to provide a more humane and rational solution to the problem of border juvenile crime.''

After reviewing the Texas programs, juvenile-justice officials in San Diego County, Calif., have implemented a similar program, working with juvenile authorities across the border in Tijuana. Texas has also had inquiries about its initiatives from New Mexico and Arizona.

With the success of the Border Children Justice projects, incarcerations of Mexican juveniles in Texas have decreased from a high of 285 in 1985. But after registering only 90 in 1987, such detentions increased to about 150 this year.

``The increase shows in part that the border projects are underfunded and understaffed,'' Mr. Garza says. ``They can't handle all the kids they're getting.'' He expects the increase to go on because families from Mexico's interior continue either to migrate to border cities or to send their children northward, in search of work.

The result, he says, is that ``still too many kids are being locked up for six months for stealing a $12 pair of pants. If they were Americans, it wouldn't be happening.''

Garza says Texas is stepping up efforts to negotiate a smoother process with adjacent Mexican states for returning young offenders. Right now the same rules that determine transfers of jailed adults apply to incarcerated juveniles.

In the meantime, Garza and others at the West Texas Children's Home are developing a program to respond better to both Hispanic-Americans and Mexicans. ``We want the program to be not just bilingual, but bicultural,'' Garza says.

For the Mexican juveniles, textbooks from Mexican schools are used, and a satellite dish picks up programming from Mexican educational television.

There are also classes in computers, social skills, and how to get a job. ``Most of them are receiving the best educational opportunity they'll ever have,'' says school principal Rob Pitts. While acknowledging that many taxpayers bridle at providing foreigners with such services, Mr. Pitts adds that ``we really don't have any other choice. There's not a fence high enough or a river deep enough to hold back that kind of economic need.''

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