Juvenile court officials make recommendations

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Richard D. Steele of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission said the average guy discussing ways to deal with juveniles who commit crime would favor sending them to a military-style boot camp.

But boot camp is not the answer, said Steele, citing recent evidence.

Neither is confinement.

Drug treatment and drug courts are moderately effective as are education, employment programs and behavior modification efforts, Steele said.

Dealing with the juvenile’s family issues and sex offender treatment are programs that “work best,” Steele said as he spoke to 45 members of the Blair County’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee at the courthouse. The committee includes Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, Judge Daniel J. Milliron, Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling, Prison Warden Michael M. Johnston and the Director of the Juvenile Parole and Probation Department Nancy Williams.

Blair County is receiving a $50,000 grant to implement new ways to reduce recidivism, or repeat criminal behavior, among people under 18 years of age.

Gov. Tom Corbett recently closed one of the state’s high security juvenile facilities in New Castle and in his budget has allocated $5 million in savings from the New Castle closing to the counties to implement new ways to address juvenile crime.

Steele told Blair County authorities that the trend is to focus on each child as an individual, to assess the teen’s risk level to reoffend and to address problems that scientific research shows are the most “dynamic” factors that lead to recidivism: the way a teen thinks, his personality and behavior, his peer relations and his family circumstances.

A former juvenile probation officer and director of the Northumberland County Probation Office, Steele said that self-esteem, personal distress, a learning disability and health and mental health issues are not as important factors in whether a young person will reoffend as they were considered in the past.

The research has shown that officials should not “over-respond” to low-risk juveniles, recommending instead to basically leave them alone to correct themselves.

Don’t lecture, blame and argue with teens as a way to address the crime, Steele said.

It is not a good idea to mix low-risk and high-risk teens in treatment programs. The low-risk kids tend to get worse and to reoffend.

Steele spoke out against “one-size-fits-all” programs, meaning that what may work for one teen won’t work for another.

Williams, Blair County’s longtime juvenile probation office director, said Blair already uses “risk assessment” in determining how to address a youth’s criminal behavior.

“Blair County’s in with both feet,” she said of Steele’s recommendations.

She said Blair does not confine first offenders unless the crime is very serious and the county will be utilizing cognitive behavior programs to address the way youngsters think and act.

If a teen is exhibiting anti-social behavior, the effort will be to change his outlook to a more positive view.

Jon Frank, newly appointed as Williams’ first deputy director, said what Steele outlined is “a whole different thing.”

Blair County Deputy District Attorney Jackie Bernard said her office looks at three things in addressing juvenile crime: the effect on the victims, the safety of the community and ways to help the juvenile.

She said Thursday’s presentation focused on only one aspect, the juvenile.

Bernard said she wants to see recidivism reduced, but the District Attorney’s Office still will consider the other two factors when presenting a case in court.

“You have to look at each case,” she said.

Assistant District Attorney Deanne Paul, newly appointed as the prosecutor in charge of juvenile cases, said she agreed with Bernard.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.