Rand Institute Helps Schools Reduce Juvenile Delinquency

As the new school year gets underway, a group of community leaders and stakeholders in Cumberland County is keeping a keen eye on the prime hotspots for juvenile crime: the schools.

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Vineland Police Chief Timothy Codispoti addresses members of the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition

Their goal isn’t to catch juvenile delinquents and put them behind bars. Rather, their mission is to intervene before these youth have an opportunity to enter the juvenile justice system.

“We want to prevent the juveniles of today from becoming the young adults of tomorrow who are committing violent, heinous crimes,” explains Tracy Swan, senior project coordinator for the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University–Camden.

Since 2009, the Rand Institute has been tasked by New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General to lead community stakeholders in Cumberland County to identify potential policies, practices, and programs which could prevent or reduce juvenile delinquency. Initially focused on Vineland, the municipality saw a 76 percent decrease in juvenile arrests before expanding the coalition in 2013 to include two other Cumberland County cities, Bridgeton and Millville.

Today, the Cumberland County Positive Youth Development Coalition is comprised of nearly 100 members representing more than 50 law enforcement agencies, municipal and county government, school districts, chaplains, and youth-serving organizations. Chaired by Freeholder Director Joe Derella, the bolstered coalition has been supported by $120,000 in grants over the past two years from the Cumberland County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

In November 2013, the Rand Institute at Rutgers–Camden conducted a data walk, collecting demographic and crime data, such as age, gender, locations where crimes were committed, and where perpetrators lived, from the three municipal police departments. They subsequently created a landscape of Cumberland County to show the coalition the five primary locations for juvenile crime.

The study found that the Vineland High School North and South campuses are the two prime hotspots. However, the statistics don’t necessarily mean that more crimes are being committed there, only that more juvenile arrests are occurring there, explains Swan.

“It tells us that the school is relying on law enforcement first versus any internal policies that they might employ to deescalate situations and achieve conflict resolution,” she says.

In response, the Rand Institute recommended that law enforcement be called as the last resort, and not the first. As Swan explains, when officers are called to resolve a physical conflict, it also increases the possibility that, in addition to disorderly conduct, juveniles could be charged with assault on a police officer and assault on school personnel as a result of breaking up the fight. Consequently, even if juveniles didn’t have any prior criminal history, they will have to contend with the ramifications of three new charges on their record.

“In most cases, these incidents could probably have been handled by security guards, guidance counselors, or teachers,” says Swan.

According to the Rutgers–Camden project coordinator, the data walk also revealed that many juvenile arrests occurred in the morning, prior to the start of school. Based on these findings, the Rand Institute suggested that, since police officers already visit the schools on a daily basis, visits should be made in the morning to create a visible deterrent.

“Even if they are just sitting in a car, just having that visible presence makes a huge difference,” she says.

According to Swan, the coalition principally aims to reduce the number of arrests by increasing the number of stationhouse adjustments performed by chaplains. Through an agreement with the respective police departments, youth who are arrested for a first-time, non-felony offense meet with a chaplain, who provides counseling and assigns them four hours of community service.

Over the past year, Vineland chaplains have been assigned to middle and high schools, where they are on call to speak with juveniles and, when necessary, perform stationhouse adjustments. The chaplains also visit the schools periodically to establish a rapport with the students, and work closely with guidance counselors, school psychologists, and administrators, to identify at-risk youth before they exhibit delinquent behavior.

“School personnel learn that the chaplains are invaluable tools who can be called on before they call law enforcement,” says Swan. “If there are charges that can be stationhouse adjusted, then juveniles can receive community service and get back on the right track, instead of going through the courts.”

The coalition demonstrated the success of the practice this past summer. In an effort to indoctrinate the newest chaplains, the coalition partnered with the Family Success Centers in Vineland, Bridgeton, and Millville, a network of community-based gathering places that offer family support services, to organize a countywide curfew sweep on the evening of August 1. A total of 26 youth were escorted to these centers, where they met with a chaplain who advised them of curfew restrictions, the spike in crime statistics after dark, and the range of available social services and resources.

Overall, the sweep was a success, says Swan, noting that no juveniles were arrested and all were released to a guardian who came to pick them up.

“This was a non-punitive educational event. We were more interested in sending a message to the kids that they could pass on to their peers,” says Swan, adding that the sweep also uncovered a .45 caliber gun and two knives.

The coalition now hopes to duplicate that success by involving school districts, and their respective personnel, in a much more systematic way.

“That’s really our focus this fall, so that by the end of the spring, we have a fully integrated relationship with the schools,” says Swan, noting that all school districts in the county are invited to participate. “For the coalition to be effective, we need that synergy to exist between the schools, law enforcement, and social services.”

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