Washington State Program Aims to Send Clear Messages to Teen Offenders

WHEN asked what he did to get locked up in a juvenile-detention center, Gerry Moran chuckles shyly.

Then, still smiling, the stocky 17-year-old describes how he and some of his friends hopped over a fence into a parking area for commercial trucks one night, hoping to spray-paint walls as a prank. They were caught by police.

``I found it fun,'' explains Gerry, who requested that his real name not be used.

``When you try to get away with something, you think it's fun; when you get caught, it's not fun.''

The incident involving Gerry is just one of about 10,000 cases that came through the Snohomish County Juvenile Court in the last year.

The experience of rising youth crime in the largely white city of Everett, Wash., parallels trends occurring around the United States.

Steven Markussen, the probation counselor working with Gerry here at the Charles Denney Youth Center, says young offenders are typically from single-parent homes, with little or no extended families, and have limited finances. Gerry, for example, says he never sees his father, and that his brother is ``in trouble all the time.''

The teens need to get two clear messages, Mr. Markussen says, in order to keep them from spiraling downward into continued criminal activity. No. 1: ``You're going to be held accountable for your crimes.'' And No. 2: ``We are going to do everything possible as a society, with you, to keep you from that.'' Part of this effort, he says, should be more emphasis on ``victim awareness'' programs to help youths grasp the harm crime does to people or their property.

For the vast majority of youths here, there is still plenty of time to intervene; they are not guilty of violence against other people and are far from becoming hardened criminals. (Youths convicted of violent crimes serve longer terms in another facility.)

But there are signs that more effective action is needed. Gerry, for example, says he has spent time here on about five separate occasions for similar incidents of trespassing or ``malicious mischief.''

``I should have done more time,'' he reckons, based on sentences given to other young men he has known. Yet, he says stiffer punishment probably would not have deterred him from committing further offenses.

So now Gerry is finishing his longest jail sentence ever - 12 days. (Sentences often combine hours working in community service with time spent serving in detention centers.)

During these days, Gerry occupies a room that is just big enough for a bed, crude desk, and metal toilet with a sink attached. His days include school periods and some outdoor recreation on a basketball court.

Gerry is reading horror books and planning his next step: getting into an alternative school where he can earn the year's worth of high school credits he lacks to get a general equivalency diploma (GED).

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