They have seen children as young as 14 years old molest and rape other children - some mere toddlers.
They have seen 16-year-olds rob stores with sawed-off shotguns and pull out guns to settle fights.
They have seen children as young as 12 using methamphetamine to get high.
What those who work in the Kootenai County justice system have not seen is a decrease in the amount or the severity of juvenile crime in Idaho.
“We’re seeing younger kids doing harder drugs. We’re seeing more violent crimes. And the most troubling part of that is, we’re seeing more violent crimes with no remorse,” said Barry Black, a deputy prosecutor who handles juvenile crime.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced this week that violent crimes by youths decreased nationwide last year for the first time in seven years.
Idaho, it would appear, is bucking that trend.
From 1994 to 1995, the rate of Idaho youths arrested for violent crimes - such as rape, assault, murder and armed robbery - increased by 12.5 percent, according to the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections.
And in the past 10 years, that rate has grown by 52 percent, said Bill Overton, department spokesman.
In Kootenai County alone, the justice system handled 1,312 juvenile crime cases in 1995, said Carolyn Peterson, head of the county’s Juvenile Diversion program. That’s a 48 percent increase from the 887 cases in 1994.
“And right now, we look like we’re going to surpass that (this year) if we keep on the current trend,” Peterson said Friday.
Peterson, who recently was recognized by the governor for her work with troubled youth, has watched Kootenai County’s juvenile crime change during 14 years on the job.
Her department, which handles mostly first-time and minor offenders, started with 143 cases in 1982. Last year they managed 556.
“We’ve had more batteries than we’ve ever had before,” she said Friday. And, “There are more weapons involved.”
She also has seen a growing number of girls committing crimes - the number of female diversion cases doubling from just under 100 in 1994 to about 200 in 1995.
And, “The types of offenders seem to be younger,” said Greg Orlando, supervisor of Kootenai County’s intensive juvenile probation unit. “We’re processing more 11, 12 and 13 year olds.”
That doesn’t bode well for the future.
“The younger they are, the better chance they will re-offend later,” he said.
There is no clear reason why Idaho isn’t sharing in the nation’s reprieve from juvenile crime. But there are some ideas.
Idaho’s population growth is one suggested reason.
More than 20 percent of the youths currently being held in Idaho state custody had moved recently from out of state, Overton said.
“We’re getting a large number of people moving in from out of state with horrendous backgrounds,” Orlando said. He keeps them under tight reins for their probation but said some still re-offend.
But he believes the true culprit behind the growing kid crimes is the breakdown of the family.
Despite Idaho’s growing juvenile crime rate, the state juvenile arrest rate remains well below the national rate.
The violent crime arrest rate for Idaho juveniles in 1994 was 264 youths per 100,000. That figure increased to 297 youths per 100,000 in 1995.
Although the nationwide rate decreased by 3 percent, it still remained at 511 youths per 100,000.
And Kootenai County has some reason for optimism. The small-time gangs that tried to sprout two years ago appear to have faded out recently, Black said.
The prosector also holds high hopes that Idaho’s newly reorganized juvenile justice system will bring about significant changes once in place for a while longer.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
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