Richmond Co. sees jump in juvenile crime

Richmond County teens with few outlets and little supervision have more opportunities to commit crimes and do drugs.

And they are.

"My docket has been riddled with more burglaries, shoplifting and theft charges," said Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders. "I have a feeling we'll see an uptick this summer because there are less things for these young people to do."

A look at the past three months -- April, May and June -- reflects the upswing. Juvenile crime in Richmond County increased 23 percent from the same period last year, with 506 cases in 2009 and 413 last year, according to Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice statistics. Shoplifting has increased 51 percent, with 86 offenses in the past three months, up from 57 last year. Simple battery has increased 69 percent, with 66 cases this year and 39 last year. And drug possession of 1 ounce or less has more than doubled, with seven cases over the past three months but just three in the same period of 2008.

The economy plays a role, but the lack of family and community support is the key factor in juvenile crime, Judge Saunders said.

"There is a lack of funding for some programming, but a breakdown in the family structure plays a major role," he said. "When I grew up there was an aunt or my mother; there was someone there. Kids do not always have that in a lot of these cases."

The biggest concern with respect to juvenile crime isn't always what happens now but what the future holds for juvenile criminals, said John Nixon, a probation parole specialist for Richmond County Juvenile Court.

"Many of the people that end up in adult court start here," Mr. Nixon said. "If we're seeing more severe crimes in juvenile court, you can only imagine what will happen in a couple of years."

Simple assault, battery and armed robberies have remained constant compared to last year, but that is not good news, said Angela Cosby, the director of the Department of Juvenile Justice, District 7, which includes Richmond County.

"The burglaries and armed robberies remain the crime of choice for many kids," she said. "A lot of the times they go back for seconds, and that always leads to a serious crime path."

Rather than place every juvenile offender in detention, Ms. Cosby said her office seeks to provide a detour from criminal paths with diversion programs. Juvenile offenders learn about gang awareness, anger management and the dangers of drugs and alcohol through the workshops. Funding for diversion is limited, so the support of community volunteers is essential, Ms. Cosby said.

Judge Saunders said he entreats parents and the community to help youth make the turnaround or avoid stepping into his court chambers in the first place.

"Parents have to take a little more responsibility in policing their children," he said. "Have your child in a structured activity. I've seen so many kids with promise locked up because they had too much time on their hands."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

506

Juvenile crimes reported between April and June 2009

23%

compared with the same time last year

66

Juvenile simple battery cases between April and June 2009

69%

compared with the same time last year

86

Juvenile theft by shoplifting cases between April and June 2009

51%

compared with the same time last year

1,631

Total juvenile crimes in Richmond County reported during fiscal year 2009 (July 2008 to June 2009)