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Leaders Offer Solutions To Juvenile Detentions

Excerpts only...full article located at:

"How can Laredo, as a community, help its troubled youth gain a sense of self-confidence and self-worth to avoid the pitfalls of negative peer pressure and crime, as well as detention and incarceration?

In Webb County, the number of juveniles arrested doubled from 1993 to 2003, with drug offenses going up 500 percent. About 70 percent of children in the Webb County juvenile justice system are also repeat offenders.

This past week, different voices in the community gave various perspectives on and solutions to the growing problem.

Adam Rodriguez and Magarita Tagle, founders of CORE, a new coalition designed to assess the true needs of Laredos troubled youth, say the city needs to invest and attract more resources to bring better services and treatment facilities to help young offenders and their families.

This year CORE, or Clinical Observation and Recommendation Endeavor, lobbied to bring New Vision, a detox center, to Laredo Medical Center. It opened in March and is now headed by Tagle.

Tagle said children as young as 10 are now turning to harder drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines. Some are even shooting up heroin or putting it in their eyes with Visine-like eyedrop bottles.

CORE is also working with Solara Healthcare of Dallas to establish a psychiatric ward for young people at Doctors Hospital.

The group has also formed a legislative team to bring more state funding and have the Texas Legislature revisit the juvenile justice code.

At a meeting of the Tri-County Medical Society last week, local physicians pledged their support to CORE, which hopes the medical society will fund simulcast television psychiatric services for young people with severe mental illness cases.

Character Education

William Crouse of Peaceful Solution Character Education, however, said nothing will change if character education is not taught to young people.

"There is no cure for immoral behavior unless we educate kids about responsible behavior," said Crouse, whose nonprofit organization teaches classes out of Gregorys Driving School on Marcella Street.

His classes reinforce the concepts of ownership, respect and self-control. They also show how theft and stealing form the basis of hatred and violence toward fellow human beings.

"Weve educated our children to be warlike," Crouse said. "But we need to teach them character education, just like we teach them how to read, write and do math."

Meanwhile, Rodriguez and Tagle said COREs ultimate goal is to create better communication among social services agencies and the juvenile department. Once this happens, they can work closely with families to improve the home environment and help their at-risk children.

Many juvenile offenders suffer from emotional, academic, mental health and substance abuse problems, and most come from low-income and dysfunctional families, especially single parent households.

Problems are also passed on generationally, with some parents suffering from the same problems as their children, Rodriguez said.

Judge Manuel "Meme" Flores said he believes parents need to become more responsible for the behavior of their children, and not rely on the state or county to do the job for them.

In the absence of proper parental guidance, "our good institutions, such as churches, schools and local mentoring programs need to step up to the plate," he said.

Flores also believes that "zero tolerance" policies and increasingly stricter Student Codes of Conduct at the public schools is creating more problems for a large swath of students.

"Schools now have codes of conduct that brand you immediately," Flores said. "Anything you do, and boom, youre sent to an alternative school. You have no second chance even if you havent been proven guilty. Schools should wait before doing that but they panic because they want to be safe. Thats the flaw of the system."

Bobby Santos, United Independent School District superintendent, said schools have implemented these policies "to take care of kids and staff."

"Zero tolerance is what our district and school board wanted," Santos said, noting that UISD is looking to expand its alternative schools in the north and south.

Fundamentally, however, Laredo and the rest of Texas should change its attitude about juveniles and juvenile detention, Flores argued.

"Research and past experience shows that sending someone to detention or incarceration lowers their self-esteem and sends the message that theyre a loser and will end up in the penitentiary," he said. "You mix good kids with bad kids and the good turns bad. Its never the other way around."

In the academic world, some like Dean Champion, a professor at Texas A&M International University who has written 35 books on the juvenile justice system since 1988, said detention centers are not necessarily bad for young offenders.

Short Term

"Its short term for juveniles, and keeps them from harming others while awaiting adjudication," Champion said.

He noted that only 10 to 12 percent of the 2 million juveniles who come to the attention of police and school authorities each year nationally do time in a correctional facility.

...Another problem throughout the system is a deeply embedded racism, Champion said.

Hispanics and blacks, particularly those who are poor, make up the largest percentage of those doing time, and they often serve longer sentences than their white counterparts, he said.

Flores, meanwhile, said he is becoming increasingly concerned with another trend in the Texas juvenile justice system: its emulation of the adult system.

"Its not going to work because the adult system doesnt work," said Flores who has seen countless adult offenders in the judicial trenches the last 20 years.

"Traditionally, people in Texas believe very strongly in incarceration. Thats the bottom-line; its intrinsic in Texas society," Flores said. "But warehousing these kids is not the best solution because they come out worse than they came in."

Building more and larger detention and correctional facilities for young people is also not the answer, said Flores, even though he supported building a new Youth Village in Laredo that will include a 72-bed detention center.

"Whats that going to solve or do?" he asked. "Theyre just going to put more kids in detention and youre going to need more probation officers, county attorneys, public defenders and so on."

Flores believes the answer lies in better parenting, more counseling, and more opportunities for young offenders to develop their self-confidence and talents...

This article is 2005 Laredo Morning Times. We have printed excerpts here for informational purposes only. Full article can be read at the Laredo Morning Times Website Archives at:
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