KIDS COUNT, an advocacy organization that tries to benefit children, has come out with a recent issue brief on juvenile justice in the state of Rhode Island.
From 1995 to 2011, the juvenile arrest rate fell 56 percent. The number of delinquents serving time at the Rhode Island Training School (RITS) went from 1,069 in 2004 to 498 during 2013. Currently, there are 82 children – 78 male and four female – at RITS.
Rhode Island has outpaced the national decline in juvenile arrests, which is 52 percent since 1995. In local communities, the shift has not been as dramatic, but officials say any progress is a major positive.
In Cranston, the number of charges in custody of RITS went down 19 percent, from 36 youths in 2009 to 29 this past year.
Johnston’s number of delinquents remained unchanged at eight in 2013, although that figure is significantly lower than in other communities.
Cranston Acting Police Chief Kevin Barry said he had noticed the local charter school didn’t have a school resource officer (SRO) and immediately put one on duty. That presence has had a positive impact on the students, he said.
“Our officers are invested and involved in the community. They are growing up with them,” Barry said. “These kids and parents, too, get to know officers personally, especially the SROs, and they understand that they are there to help. They become role models.”
Carlos Lopez, Mayor Allan Fung’s chief of staff, said the city is “working hard to be preemptive and proactive with our youth in Cranston.” He said the city has allocated resources to the school system to combat children entering the juvenile system, and he also mentioned the new SRO and said that the city is hoping to see even more improvement with the position.
Elizabeth Burke Bryant, executive director at KIDS COUNT, said community ties help young people greatly in preventing interaction with the juvenile justice system.
“There has been a big national push in prevention and intervention and especially here in Rhode Island,” she said. “They are examining what the youth needs to be successful. We have people working every day in this state, caring adults that are trying to help the youth of Rhode Island keep a positive outlook on their futures.”
Bryant explained that many of the children in RITS come from lower-income families and can be predisposed to substance abuse, mental health issues and physical, mental or sexual abuse, but don’t have the means to reach out to the services or professionals they need.
“At the first signs of difficulty with a child, lines of communication have to be opened,” she said. “There needs to be a support network set up for that child to get them back on track. Parents, family, teachers, mentors and coaches are all great resources for keeping kids on track.”
She mentioned that because the stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse is starting to deteriorate, children are receiving access to help rather than having the issue swept under the rug until it escalates.
“In our nation and in our state, the stigma is decreasing, but we still do not have enough services for everyone who needs them,” she said.
The juvenile system has also reformed over the years to involve programs that provide family- and community-based alternatives.
The Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), in partnership with the state and coordinated by KIDS COUNT in 2009, put in place policies through which the justice system attempts to reduce “unnecessary and inappropriate” incarceration in secure detention centers.
“JDAI has great people from throughout the system partner together to look at the issue of juvenile delinquency and decide what really requires detention and what can be better solved outside with probation, therapy or rehabilitation,” Bryant said.
KIDS COUNT hopes to see juvenile delinquency continue to decline, and that their new issue brief, which can be found online at www.rikidscount.org, will help continue to benefit children by providing data to cities and departments.