Budget cuts threaten gains in housing young offenders, say experts

There is little chance that any of the 85 youths at Goshen Center for Boys, whose ages range from 14 to 20 and whose offenses range from burglary to murder, will run away.

A high chain-link fence, topped with overlapping coils of razor-sharp barbed wire, has recently been erected. The squat, red-brick complex contrasts with the surrounding white-frame farm houses that dot the rolling landscape here some 50 miles north of New York City.

To some observers, the prison-like look of Goshen is more than architecturally disturbing. To them, it symbolizes a national trend in juvenile justice. Across the United States, say such observers, tougher state laws are resulting in longer sentences for juvenile offenders. According to Harry Swanger , director of the National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis, ''States are going to turn more and more to a warehousing rather than a rehabilitation mode'' because of funding cuts. A White House spokesman confirms this, adding that juvenile crime should be dealt with at a local level.

Why this trend toward more secure facilities?

Charles A. Lauer, acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention (OJJDP), the principal federal program combating juvenile crime, points out that four respected studies indicate ''the overall volume of serious and violent juvenile crime appears to have leveled off beginning about 1975, a point in time which roughly correlates with a sharp decrease in the number of baby boom youths of juvenile age.'' However, while he stressed that the volume may have leveled off, the rate of crimes committed by juveniles appear to have gone up a bit.

''Rethinking Juvenile Justice,'' a study to be released in June by the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., bears out Mr. Lauer's remarks. Although the number of juvenile crimes has decreased in Minnesota over the last several years, the rate of crimes per 100,000 juveniles has increased, according to a researcher who worked on the study.

While experts argue whether serious crimes by juveniles have increased, media reports of such crimes have fueled a widespread preception that they are spiraling upward. In turn, a demand for tougher measures against young offenders is building.

''The main objective, as I see it, is to keep these young men confined. . . . The main philosophy is to get them off the street and keep them so they don't run away,'' says Bruce Oboski, assistant director of the Goshen Center. ''I think the public would like to see them rehabilitated, but the main thing is they would like to see them taken off the streets and locked up.''

Indiana, Illinois, and Utah are among states that have taken steps to make their youth facilties more secure. The aim: to make it plain to the youths, and the public, that these facilities are penal institutions.

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Corrections, which currently runs three training schools for juvenile offenders, says that although he personally believed in ''stiff penalities'' for youthful offenders, the primary responsibility for these penalities belongs to local judges who do the sentencing. According to experts, many judges who mete out tougher sentences feel they are reflecting a public mood asking for a crackdown. Evidence of this in some states: Juveniles in the court system are being given adult sentences.

The Indiana spokesman adds, however, that Indiana would like to move in the direction of community-based alternatives to incarceration, but needs to wait for a time when the state can better afford them: after the recession is over and unemployment goes down.

Most experts concede that much progress has been made in the juvenile justice system. Spurred by a series of class-action suits brought by concerned parents and youth-advocacy groups, together with a great deal of media attention, the nation's training schools and detention centers have come a long way in the past 15 years. The physical abuse of young offenders in such institutions is largely a thing of the past. And youths whose only crimes may have been running away from home or being truant from school are much less likely to be housed together with hardened young criminals.

But despite progress, these experts say, there also are new stumbling blocks - and some reversals. In the words of juvenile law center director Swanger, in some ways training schools and detention centers are ''going backwards.''

For its part, despite tough talk on crime, the Reagan administration so far has slated no funds in fiscal year 1983 for OJJDP.

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