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Kids staying out of trouble or just getting away with it ... ?
OXFORD COUNTY — Children in Oxford County are arrested at a far lower rate than the statewide average, according to a recent study published by the Maine Children's Alliance.
Across the state, five out of every 100 children aged 10 to 17 was arrested in 2009. In Oxford County, the number is just 2.8 per 100 children. This is just a bit more than half the state average.
The reason for this is a mystery, but is likely because of a variety of factors.
Every child arrest in Oxford County must go through a Juvenile Community Corrections Officer (JCCO). In the entire county, there are only two such officers.
James Miclon, the director of the Oxford County Regional Communications Center, works with law enforement officers from eight departments around the county. He says that the philosophy of the individual JCCO can have a big impact on arrest rates.
"It's almost like fishing. Catch and release," said Miclon. "Even for murder, the Attorney General's office, which acts as the [JCCO] in that instance, makes a decision."
But JCCO Christopher Dillman, who covers half of Oxford County (colleague Denise Carrier covers the other half) says that he doesn't do anything differently than JCCOs in other parts of the state.
"I don't know [why arrest rates are lower]," said Dillman. He says that he uses the same criteria that is used elsewhere.
"All of our detentions are based on risk levels," said Dillman. "We use a [standardized] assessment that determines whether or not they should be released."
Dillman said that one factor might be successful prevention efforts by officers who work closely with school districts.
Dillman pointed to Paris Police Officer Skip Mowatt, who works with the SAD 17 School District, as a good example of an officer who can find more positive outcomes than an arrest.
"He takes a really proactive role in dealing with kids in the middle school and high school," said Dillman.
Rick Colpitts, the superintendent for the district, agrees.
"[Officer Mowatt] has to have a hand in [the low arrest rates]," said Colpitts. "You're developing a relationship with a law enforcement officer on a first name basis. That has to set the stage as well."
Claire Berkowitz, the research coordinator of the Maine Children's Alliance, which published the report, says that some communities are better than others at engaging children and keeping them out of trouble.
"When kids are engaged, it keeps them out of trouble," said Berkowitz. "Communities need to provide activities that target kids who don't fit into normal rec center activities."
Berkowitz suggested that the staff of SAD 17 and other districts in the county might be playing an integral role in keeping students out of trouble.
Colpitts said that local educators deserve credit for being mentors to their individual students.
"Our teachers work really hard at establishing a relationship with students," he said.
He also said that SAD 17 is very well integrated into a larger network of social services that can help to avert potential problems before they fully manifest themselves.
"At least within Oxford Hills, there are numerous agencies that work to support youth, and they work in a fairly concerted manner. I think we do a better job of this than most communities, and I would have to hope that that has something to do with it," he said.
Overall, Colpitts said that the data was "intriguing," and that it might be an indicator that hard work is paying off.
"It's a glimmer of hope," he said.
Dillman also says that the number of arrests initiated by local law enforcement agencies might be lower than in other counties around the state.
"I believe probably the reason the numbers are down is because departments probably summons kids as opposed to arresting them," said Dillman. "That's probably due to ... staffing levels."
Law enforcement officials say that the arrest of a juvenile in Oxford County has its own special set of logistical hurdles that serve to discourage teen arrests.
"It's pretty common knowledge that juveniles are given the proverbial slap on the wrist," said Norway Police Chief Robert Federico.
Unlike many counties in Maine, Oxford's rural character can discourage the arrest of a teen.
This is because a teen who receives a summons can be released to the custody of his or her parents, while an arrested teen must be transported to an appropriate facility.
No such appropriate facility exists in Oxford County.
Oxford Police Chief Jon Tibbetts says that the situation is a side effect of the state's decision to consolidate the county's jails.
"When the jails consolidated, the state did not take any consideration in for juveniles," said Tibbetts. "The Oxford County Jail cannot house a juvenile. We can't even put them inside the jail, which means that if we arrest a juvenile, we either transport them to a center in South Portland ourselves, or if we're lucky, somebody from the jail can do it."
Tibbetts says that driving a teen to South Portland is so time-consuming that it only happens to the most serious offenders.
"Basically, unless it's a violent crime or a serious crime, we're not arresting them. We're just summonsing and kicking them loose, because financially, for any budget, you can't keep driving to South Portland all the time."
"What I think might be different is the fact that Oxford County is a huge county," said Federico. "Let's say that there's a juvenile in Bethel that's committed a crime. It would have to be a pretty serious crime to tie up an officer and cruiser for four hours, five hours. Then, usually in a day or two, they have to be brought back."
Federico says that the catch and release mode of dealing with teen offenders is encouraged by the state.
"I think it's the entire juvenile justice system," said Federico.
Federico says that juveniles are rarely given the same harsh treatments as adults, because the state legal system has a different goal in mind when handling the different types of cases.
"The philosophy for the state of Maine is that juveniles should be rehabilitated, rather than punished," said Federico.
When a juvenile commits a crime, the department that takes custody of the offender contacts a JCCO and explains the situation.
"The juvenile officer would say, in almost every case, to release the juvenile to an adult, usually the parent or guardian," said Federico.
"So then that worker tells us, 'release the individual and give him that court date.' We write out the summons and give it to the parents. We write out a bail condition."
Federico says that many first-time offenders get what amounts to a stern talking to.
"If it's a first offense and it's a minor offense, the juvenile intake officer will have an informal discussion, and he'll make a determination whether to move forward with the case or to make an informal adjustment. ... All of this is dependent on whether the DA office will prosecute."
The effects of the low teen arrest rate can be negative, said Federico.
"The question is how many repeat offenders there are," he said. "For a lot of victims, it's very frustrating. The victim sees the juvenile hanging out with his friends at the skateboard park [for example] after doing thousands of dollars worth of damage. ... I don't think it's an ideal situation."
Federico says that a lax attitude toward child incarceration can cause adults to use young people as pawns in their crimes.
"It's also pretty common knowledge that juveniles are being involved because the juveniles will not be punished and the adults never get arrested for it," he said.
Dillman, on the other hand, feels an outcome that doesn't include an arrest is often a positive thing.
"We prefer to use interventions such as community-based interventions ... that keep them in the community as opposed to detention," said Dillman. "Many times officers use discretion. They try to work things out with kids as opposed to arresting them or that type of thing."
Local teens say that they are aware that they will be treated lightly for first or minor offenses.
One senior at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, who asked not to be named, said that, in his experience, the threat of punishment is not a deterrent to a crime.
"I definitely think kids our age will take the risk to get the benefit," he said. "They say 'I'm not an adult yet. What's the worst that could happen?'"
He said that many teens get second and third chances, and take advantage of them.
Whether they favor harsh or lenient treatment by the system, experts agree that parents are the best line of defense between juveniles and a world of crime.
"You really do need to know where that child is and who they're with at all times," said Federico. "You're responsible for their safety and welfare, and you're also responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. You do need to be a parent still."
Berkowitz advises parents to think about occupying children during the after school hours.
"Getting your kid involved in something is a huge preventative measure in keeping kids from getting into trouble," she said. "Knowing who their peers are is so important, just being engaged and connected with their lives. Adolescents are pushing boundaries and pushing parents away, but they need, and want those boundaries."