Curbing juvenile crime must be a priority for next mayor

Carjackings are often committed by juveniles. Mentoring, after-school and other youth programs need support, and it’s a mayor’s job to “sell” them to the public.

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The Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center is seen in this photo, Aug. 25, 2022.

The Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center is seen in this photo, Aug. 25, 2022.

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Reducing violent crimes committed by youth should be the top priority for each of the candidates for mayor of Chicago, as today’s criminal youth is often tomorrow’s hardened adult criminal.

Armed robberies and armed carjackings have become daily occurrences in Chicago, and many of them are committed by those under 18. While no one seems to have exact numbers for carjackings committed by juveniles, some estimate that they account for nearly 50% of these crimes over the last three years — enough to make average citizens wary. There were 1,413 carjackings in 2020, 1,849 in 2021 and 1,655 in 2022, according to data from the City of Chicago. Carjackings were down in 2022, but fear is not.

To be clear, violent crime by juveniles in Chicago is nothing new. But solving this problem must be a priority.

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There are many theories as to why these crimes have increased over the last few years, but there are certain things most can agree on. Most juvenile offenders do not have positive role models in their lives; more specifically, most do not have fathers in their lives. While the city, like any other government entity, cannot take the place of a father, it can take steps to address this issue.

Steps I have heard discussed so far by the mayoral candidates are mostly punitive actions in the criminal courts. These are often one-size-fits-all measures that do more harm than good.

The new governor of Maryland, Wes Moore, often tells the story of how he was arrested for spraying graffiti on a building when he was a child and how his life may have turned out very differently had the arresting officer not let him go after giving him a stern lecture. Don’t get me wrong — I realize that armed robbery and armed vehicular hijacking are not as harmless as spraying graffiti on a building. There should be consequences for crimes, yet we must be careful when dealing with young people. 

As a society, we do not want to “throw away” our youth, even those who have committed violent crimes, if there is a chance that they can change and become positive members of society. At the same time, those who commit these crimes must face responsibility. 

Far too often, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other — either a slap on the wrist, or introducing a kid to a criminal justice system that they will be in and out of for the rest of their life.

I believe the only way to reduce juvenile crime is to reach youth early on.

Families need more resources, which means money for child care. All too often kids are left to fend for themselves while their parent or parents are away at work. This often leaves the child without guidance and relying on bad role models rather than following rules set by their parents. 

Programs to get kids off the street need more support from the city, both in dollars and attention. These programs — after-school clubs or open gyms on weekends, for instance — should be touted by our politicians.

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Our city can also better promote mentorship programs. Research has shown that mentoring is likely to help curb delinquent behavior. It is important to note that mentoring is offered to juvenile offenders, but youth often resist mentors in such circumstances, viewing them as extensions of an unpleasant justice system. That is why mentoring youth before they become e offenders is so vital.

Sadly, the will of the public to fund these programs often is lacking, but it’s a mayor’s job to “sell” these initiatives and let the public know that not only are they cheaper than incarceration — it’s a lot better for young people and for society.

Plainly speaking, juvenile crime should be at the forefront of issues addressed by all our mayoral candidates.

Jeffery M. Leving is founder and president of the Law Offices of Jeffery M. Leving Ltd., and is an advocate for the rights of fathers.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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