June 13, 2006 – It's that time of year. Students buzz with the excitement of summer – hanging out with friends, jobs, camp, traveling and cooling out at the beach. School is out! It is the best time of these young people's lives, or it should be.
Unfortunately, many residents of our community cannot look forward to summer with the same sense of excitement. To many, summer means more unsupervised children loitering on the street corners or at the mall. It is a time when idle hands and minds have too many opportunities to get into mischief. Juvenile delinquency and juvenile crime are especially prevalent during the summer months, when there are historically a larger number of youth not engaged in any constructive or productive activity.
In recent weeks the issue of juvenile crime has become a hot topic in our community – particularly since violence erupted at a local junior high school and the issue of juvenile crime captivated a recent town meeting.
Juvenile crime is on the rise, not only in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but across the nation as a whole. The rise in juvenile criminal activity in our community can be directly correlated to juvenile delinquency, which has been called a "massive and growing problem in America." In itself, juvenile delinquency is not a crime, but a deviation from accepted social and cultural norms. What may be considered a delinquent act here in the Caribbean, where social codes may be more formal, may not be considered delinquency on the United States mainland. Social codes may even vary from island to island. Differences in values, experiences and attitudes affect how people, including adolescents, behave.
A juvenile delinquent, then, is defined as an adolescent engaging in anti-social behavior that violates the social codes of the area. This includes acts ranging from simple disrespect all the way up to murder.
Typically, the government's approach to stemming juvenile delinquency and crime is reinforcement of the mandated 10 p.m. curfew. However, the Police Department suggests that additional measures must be taken if we are truly serious about addressing juvenile delinquency and crime. The department recommends an interagency approach involving all agencies that have roles in the care and supervision of children, including this department and the departments of Education, Human Services, and Housing, Parks and Recreation. These agencies should first identify our community needs and then critically examine the shortcomings of all of the existing programs designed to address juvenile delinquency and crime. Secondly, the involved agencies should devise a strategy for pooling available resources and implementing this goal.
The V.I. Police Department has several components in place to address juvenile delinquency and crime. The Youth Investigation Bureau aims to implement more frequent interaction with students in school-based classroom settings. Presently, the unit holds school assemblies on juvenile violence and conflict resolution. Juvenile officers believe the classroom approach will be more effective in reinforcing the Police Department's position that crime will not be tolerated. School-based law enforcement components are key factors in the department's efforts to quell juvenile delinquency. School resource officers and the School Security Bureau work to promote safety and security for students, staff and faculty of the public school system.
Programs like DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance and Education) and PAL (Police Athletic League) are unable to serve a larger segment of the juvenile target group because of financial and human resources limitations. The department has traditionally offered PAL as an after-school and summer time alternative to idleness. Participants are engaged in sports and are exposed to various trades. Weed and Seed operates after-school and summer programs that seek to prevent, control and reduce violent crime, drug abuse and gang activity in targeted high-crime neighborhoods.
The Police Pre-Cadet program provides youth 12 to 17 with a basic introduction to police work and law enforcement. The popularity of this program has declined in recent years, which might be attributed to a lack of financial support and, more unfortunately, a lack of interest from the community.
While these programs are effective, they alone cannot serve the needs of the growing juvenile community. Limited funding and human resources – a dilemma shared by all government agencies – hampers the department's ability to provide programming that reaches larger segments of the community.
Juvenile delinquency is a community issue. No single agency, including the Police Department, should be expected to bear the full responsibility for addressing juvenile delinquency and crime. Any dialogue about these issues must honestly tackle the importance of parental involvement and the impact that poor parenting is having on our community. Solutions to our juvenile issues should involve the community and a strong commitment from every facet of the government. These issues deserve a holistic, community-based response, instead of the customary patchwork approach that has not proven effective.
We should all look forward to summer.
Editors note: Elton Lewis is the Police commissioner of the Virgin Islands
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