The Department of Probation is reporting a dramatic spike in the arrest of young people over the last year—a 30 percent increase between January 2005 and January 2006. After declining from 1995 through 2001, juvenile arrests have increased for each of the last four years and are now rising back toward levels common in the mid-1990s.

The arrests are inundating Family Court with new delinquency cases (see “Fixing Family Court”). Larry Busching, chief of the Family Court Division of the city’s Corporation Counsel, said that while the cases run the gamut from graffiti to domestic fights, “we’re seeing a lot of robberies and assaults.” He points in particular to a wave of iPod and cell phone thefts perpetrated by teens on other teenagers.

The New York Police Department’s latest numbers for juvenile arrests only run from January through September 2005, but also record the upward trend: for that period, the NYPD arrested 8,763 young people under age 16, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. From January through September 2005, police arrested 8,763 young people under age 16, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. At that date a year earlier, the total was 7,838.

Last year, more than 4,000 juvenile arrests were for the seven major felonies tracked by the NYPD—murder, rape, robbery, grand larceny, burglary, major assault and auto theft. The department says its database is currently unable to categorize and quantify the other specific crimes for which teenagers under age 16 have been arrested.

Patricia Brennan, deputy commissioner for Family Court Services at the Department of Probation, says that some of the increase may be the result of a zero tolerance policy in schools—such as arrests for fights and other incidents that once would have been handled internally by school administrators as discipline issues. She also sees CompStat-driven police work in high-crime areas as a factor.

Melanie Shapiro, a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society in Queens, said she sees cases that in the past would have been handled not as delinquency prosecutions but under Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) guidelines, in which judges issue orders on behalf of parents seeking help with teenagers they feel they cannot control. Even when parents don’t want to follow through on charges against their own children, said Shapiro, prosecutors now routinely block Legal Aid lawyers’ efforts to change juvenile delinquency cases into PINS.

Other defense lawyers concur that the city’s Corporation Counsel is dogged about pursuing trials once they’re in court. Busching acknowledged that his lawyers typically wait until after they secure a conviction against a young person before seeking alternatives: “We have to make a recommendation to the court about what happens then. It could be a referral to a community-based treatment provider, or enhanced-supervision probation.”

Nonetheless, the Department of Probation continues to increase the number of cases it diverts into out-of-court supervision programs and away from prosecution. The department is negotiating with the NYPD to secure a policy of default police cooperation with the diversion process except in cases where an officer specifically requests otherwise. Until now, each commanding officer has followed his or her own practices in dealing with arrests.

At most precincts, said Kim McLaurin, the supervising attorney for Legal Aid in Queens, whether a teen goes home or goes to court depends on whether there’s a parent to pick him or her up from the station. “That’s where the foster kids suffer,” said McLaurin. “If no one picks them up, there’s no one to release them to. Those are the kids who are coming to court.”

The Administration for Children’s Services screens all detained juvenile delinquents in order to make sure those in foster care at the time of their arrest have agency representatives present at their court appearances. A Vera Institute of Justice study several years ago found that if a responsible adult is present for the initial hearing in Family Court, judges are far more likely to send a child home.

–Alyssa Katz

This article is adapted from Child Welfare Watch, Vol. 12. The full report can be read here.