Why Do Young Children Kill?

All states wrestle with how to protect society from children who kill while making sure they get the rehabilitation they need, and ensuring  justice for victims’ families.

The most effective rehabilitation comes from juvenile programs where young children receive therapy in a positive environment and behavioral interventions aimed at increasing empathy, self-management, and self-regulation.

In adult prison, the emphasis is on punishment. More vocational and academic programs have been added, but not every young adult prisoner takes advantage of them. Juveniles don’t do well in prison, and they certainly cannot be expected to benefit from being placed with adults with criminal thinking. Instead, in prison, they are placed in an environment where criminal thinking tends to be the social norm.

Nationally, 10 percent of all murders are committed by juveniles, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That’s about 1,043 murders a

year. More younger children are committing increasingly violent crimes. The irony is younger children have a better chance of being rehabilitated because they stay under juvenile control longer, so that therapeutic interventions and supervision continues.Most of the time violent juveniles are transferred to adult court and tried as adults. If convicted, they remain in a juvenile detention center until they are 19, and then they are transferred to the adult prison to serve the remainder of their sentence. If one happens to be tried as a juvenile and is convicted, he serves his entire sentence in a juvenile detention center and is freed by the time he turns 19.

Experts say violent crime among  juveniles is down nationally. And when it happens, we know what treatments can be effective. What works is one-on-one and group therapy and empowering a child through academic and vocational classes. What doesn’t work is Scared Straight programs and boot camps. In fact, they actually have been shown to have negative effects.

Still, for many of these kids, their time in youth facilities is not long enough to reverse a lifetime of letdowns from the adults in their lives. Nationally, 40 percent of first-time offenders return to juvenile court.

Violence toward others peaks in adolescent years, but a violent adolescent doesn’t necessarily become a violent adult. Some two-thirds to three-

quarters of violent youths grow out of it and become more self-controlled. This, coupled with the efforts to rehabilitate in the juvenile justice system, is why some

ay trying children as adults is no benefit to society.

New York State will spend  $170 million this year on 21 juvenile facilities, employing more than 2,000 employees to oversee fewer than 700 children.

The facilities are disastrously mismanaged, and as many as 80 percent of the young men who serve time end up committing more crimes within a few years of their release.

Low-risk youths — those found guilty of crimes like shoplifting, trespassing and petty theft — should be sent to community-based programs that do a much better job of rehabilitation and are only $15, 000 per youth per year, instead of $220,000 per year in the state juvenile facilities.  For youth whose families can follow through on recommendations, multisystemic therapy is a less expensive and more efficient intervention. Multisystemic therapy keeps children in their family’s homes, in their communities.

Decades of research show that keeping young offenders locked up far from their families is a sure way of turning them into career criminals. Preliminary data collected by the New York City juvenile justice system suggests that recidivism for children handled through the city’s largest community-based program, Juvenile Justice Initiative, could be lower than 20 percent. This program provides intensive counseling and services to the family, to help parents better manage the child’s behavior.

The Juvenile Justice initiative, and similar nonprofit programs have helped the city cut the number of youths it sends upstate by more than 60 percent since 2002. These programs have reduced the number of children in state facilities  from more than 2,300 in 2000 to about 680 today.

Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, has closed several unneeded facilities in the last three years, with a struggle. The politically powerful unions that represent juvenile facility workers are fighting to keep facilities open no matter what the cost to children or the state.

The unions succeeded in passing a law in 2006 that requires the state to give one year’s notice to workers before closing any juvenile facility. In January the state ordered the closure of the Tryon boys’ facility in upstate Fulton County. The facility — which gained national notoriety after a mentally ill 15-year-old boy died there in 2006 — has been empty of children since June. It still has a staff of 80 people working there and will only officially shut down in January 2012.