DENVER — Skyrocketing rates of violent juvenile crime have grabbed national attention in the past year. Homicide by youths under 17 tripled between 1984 and 1994, while adult homicide rates declined during the same period. Youths under 18 account for about 20 percent of the nation's violent crime. If current trends continue, juvenile arrests for violent crime will double by the year 2010.
Convinced that the current system of juvenile justice is not working, virtually every state in the country is revising its juvenile-crime laws, and 14 states have lowered the age at which juveniles can be tried in adult courts.
But there is little consensus even among experts on how best to deal with juvenile offenders. Should they be tried as adults in criminal court? Be sent to boot camps, or juvenile detention? Do they need therapeutic treatment or swift punishment?
In Colorado, where the arrest rate for violent crimes by youths aged 10-17 jumped 72 percent since 1985, these questions have taken on particular urgency. Only 10 states have higher juvenile-crime rates.
Placements of juvenile offenders are determined by the district attorney. Although a multiagency screening team - including child welfare, law enforcement, and mental-health officials - will offer recommendations, the district attorney's office decides whether probation, detention, residential treatment or out-of-home placement is appropriate. The DA may also decide to charge a juvenile as an adult. Determinations center on the age of the youth, the type of offense, whether it's a first-time offense, whether there are obvious psychological problems, and family and school situations.
But because there are no hard-and-fast criteria, decisions may not be consistent from case to case.
In general, younger offenders who have failed probation may end up in a juvenile lockup. Those evaluated as having deeper emotional problems may be sent to a residential treatment center. Older juvenile offenders and those who have committed more violent crimes are more likely to be charged as adults.
On these pages is a look at three approaches to setting young offenders straight. Two are run by the state, while the third is privately run but receives taxpayer funding. A traditional juvenile prison focuses on improving social and academic skills. A "last chance" program, which combines elements of boot camp with counseling and education and is being held up as a national model, admits juveniles who would otherwise be incarcerated as adults. The first group of offenders completed the program early this year.
Finally, a ranch-based program has young offenders working with animals and going on wilderness challenges - an approach that is getting renewed attention.