Last week s deadly shooting of a Toledo vice detective allegedly by a 145-pound kid nicknamed Bobby White trained a spotlight on Lucas County s juvenile courthouse downtown.
It has been more than a decade since a story of teen violence has triggered so much community anger. Johnnie Jordan, who killed his stepmother with a hatchet and burned her body in 1996, remains locked away in an adult prison.
Since then, a panic over a rise in gangs and young thugs has subsided. So, too, has thoughtful, public discussion of juvenile crime.
What has not fallen, however, is the legal activity at the Lucas County Juvenile Court.
You look at the numbers, and we re just as busy busier than we were before, said Dan Pompa, longtime court administrator.
According to freshly released statistics, juvenile crime that hit a statistical flat line between 2000 and 2004 has begun to move upward again. At the same time, the number of juveniles locked up for crimes has continued downward.
A total of 12,166 new charges were filed in 2006 in juvenile court, a nearly 4 percent increase over the 11,717 charges the year before. And the 2005 filings were 9 percent higher than the 10,747 charges filed in 2004.
The numbers are a marked increase over the caseload in the 1990s, when a string of local and national gang and domestic murders helped define the public s image of a super predator.
Among the local cases was that of a group of young boys who tortured a Vietnam veteran and a 10-year-old who killed his cousin in an argument over a sleepover.
Crack and gangs and guns. That was the late 80s and early 90s, said Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge Denise Cubbon, then the supervising prosecutor in juvenile court.
Last week, news crews packed the courthouse once more.
Police say Robert Jobe, 15, shot and killed Detective Keith Dressel with a .38-caliber gun in the 1400 block of North Ontario Street shortly before 2 a.m. Wednesday.
According to the charges, officers pulled up to young Jobe and 19-year-old Sherman Powell in a dense fog. They talked briefly. When the officers identified themselves as police, young Jobe and Mr. Powell ran in separate directions.
During a struggle with young Jobe, police say, Detective Dressel was shot once in the chest.
Lucas County Juvenile Court Judge James Ray will now decide whether to transfer the 15-year-old to Common Pleas Court. If that happens, and if the boy is convicted, the youth could join the 78 juveniles now in Ohio s adult prisons for a variety of felonies.
Two are from Lucas County: Cristoffer Curey, who kidnapped and raped an 8-year-old boy at a South Toledo arcade, and Donald Corrigan, a 17-year-old with a long juvenile rap sheet and an adult burglary conviction.
They are two of the declining numbers of teens who at the same time that crime has crept upward have been sent to adult or juvenile prison.
Over the last 15 years, fewer juveniles have been locked up, in large part, because of a state program. Reclaim Ohio sends state money to communities so that youngsters may continue to go to school and receive intensive programming near home rather than be housed in a prison across the state.
Last year, the state sent Lucas County $1.6 million to do just that, and youths who might have been sent to prison instead ended up reporting to drug rehab, hours-long community detention meetings, and other programs.
Authorities say such programs offers troubled youths more wrap-around services than if they were to sit in a prison cell.
Violent crimes up
Still, the downward trend in incarcerations seems surprising when compared to the rise of four particular violent crimes: homicide, rape, serious assault, and robbery.
In the last 15 years, those four categories have crested and fallen a couple of times, but most recently and especially last year they were on an upward surge.
In 2005, judges found juveniles guilty of 87 of those violent crimes. Last year, prosecutors filed 223 of the same charges, or more than 2 times the figure for 2005 convictions. Some of the new cases may be dismissed or reduced to lesser crimes.
Just what is happening, however, is somewhat unclear.
While the most violent felonies seem to be surging, they represent just 2 percent of the court s caseload each year.
At the same time, other felony convictions, such as burglary, have dropped to about half what they were a decade ago from 825 in the 1996 fiscal year to 415 last year in Lucas County, and from 15,857 to 8,752 in the same time statewide, according to the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
But some wonder: Are felonies really falling, or is the court simply not doing its job?
Some people were livid last week at the news that the Jobe youth had a criminal record including a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon in January but that he d never been sent to a state youth prison.
Bruce Beatty, an advocate for gun owners rights, was among them.
The 51-year-old man was arrested in Toledo after carrying a gun into a park. He did so in violation of the park ordinance that prohibits firearms in parks, a law he said is unconstitutional.
Look, this kid has been in court for how many different charges? Mr. Beatty said.
His own son, Adam, recently went to state prison for robbery. Mr. Beatty said his son was troubled growing up and that he accompanied his son to juvenile court in another county several times.
But juvenile judges never ordered Adam Beatty behind bars for misdeeds. None involved violent allegations, but they were crimes that sent up flags that this was a kid who was heading for trouble, Mr. Beatty said.
He s my son and I love him to the end of my life, but it s two-prong [accountability]. I hold him accountable for his actions, and I hold myself accountable. But the system has to hold itself accountable.
You let these kids get away with it once, they just come back and get into bigger and better things. Now whose fault is that?
Judge Ray and others at juvenile court say numbers can be dangerous: Glance at them quickly, they re misleading.
You can frame small numbers in a lot of ways and what you see might be, well, wrong, Judge Ray said.
Though the most serious violent crimes by juveniles are undeniably inching upward, so are four other, mostly misdemeanor, crimes.
Last year, 3,890 or one in three charges in Lucas County Juvenile Court involved safe-school violations, domestic violence, misdemeanor assault, or petty theft.
Especially for a kid with a clean record, those offenses rarely lead to time behind bars. Youths charged with domestic violence are sometimes ordered to programs that attempt to sort out the dangerous family dynamics that lead to violence.
And then there are safe-school violations that last year made up to 14 percent of the total delinquency caseload.
A sort of catchall charge, Toledo s municipal code allows youths to be charged with the first-degree misdemeanor if they disrupt, disturb, or interfere with the teaching of any class.
So while some safe-school ordinance violations might involve charges like fighting and other violence, a recent review of several reports from Toledo police and the Lucas County Sheriff s Department shows that kids have also been charged this year for throwing a snowball, cursing at a teacher, and snoring in class.
The safe-school ordinance can sometimes criminalize misbehavior that at one time would have been addressed in a principal s office. Now such deeds can trigger a trip to the courtroom, Mr. Pompa said.
And that, in turn, blurs the distinction between pain-in-the-neck kids and those with more dangerous tendencies.
You can take any misbehavior and make it a misdemeanor, he said.
But others, such as those who walk school hallways every day, see it differently.
Keith Miller is a principal at Scott High School and has worked with youngsters for more than three decades.
Their behavior has changed 180 [degrees], probably because of the younger, single-parent homes and a lack of discipline stemming from home. There s a loss of self-respect, and as a result they don t respect peers. They don t respect authority, he said.
Even language that once seemed intolerable is generally accepted, he said.
They refer to each other very derogative, even in a friendly manner. My bitch, my ho, the way they refer to each other that way these days would mean we d be duking it out in our day, Mr. Miller said.
That lack of respect for authority can escalate to violence, he said.
Whatever the crime minor or major, nuisance or deadly it s still roughly the same population of youths in the downtown courtrooms, Judge Cubbon said.
Regardless of the crime wave, whether it s [safe-school violations], domestic violence, or the gun crimes and drug crimes, we still go back to the basic problems that these kids face. It s the social issues, and violence and drugs on the streets, and [that] they re raising themselves. It s how poverty affects families, the judge said.
Take a teenage girl who was one of the 720 domestic violence cases last year. The easiest answer is to put her in a lockup.
But chances are good that simply adding to her rap sheet means she s probably going to be in court again, Judge Cubbon said. Instead of saying this is a domestic charge, we also need to say, What s going on in this house? What s really happening here?
The key to reducing crime, she said, is as much in questions as it is in holding juveniles accountable for their wrongdoings.
Juvenile crime, she said, is usually a symptom of a much, much larger problem.
Contact Robin Erb at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6133.