- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - A cab driver is shot twice in the back of the head. A 90-year-old woman is strangled with a cane and then beaten to death. Another woman, 83, is stabbed, robbed and raped in her home.

The three crimes, individually shocking in their callousness and brutality, are unrelated, but all are bound together by one disturbing thread.

In each case, police arrested and charged a child, none older than 16.

At a time when serious offenses by juveniles are down across the board, a rash of high-profile crimes in northeast Pennsylvania involving children and adolescents seemingly defies the trend and has left law enforcement officials and others looking for answers.

“Obviously, we hope they are anomalies. We hope they are not going to become the norm,” said Frank Castellano, a former deputy district attorney who prosecuted juvenile cases in Lackawanna County for 13 years before his appointment as county court administrator in August. “But only the future will tell.”

The national rate of juvenile arrests for violent crimes - homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - has tumbled significantly and almost continuously since the mid-1990s, figures from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show.

Across the seven counties of Northeast Pennsylvania, the number of children 17 and under charged with violent crimes dropped from 123 in 2010 to 86 in 2014, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System. Through the first nine months of this year, there were 51 in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming counties.

Lackawanna County’s numbers have held relatively steady over that time, with an average of about two dozen arrests per year.

However, embedded in the regional statistics is a series of crimes over the past 17 months that have raised concerns that the tenor and intensity of the offenses are changing even as the overall numbers slip downward.

Scranton Police Chief Carl Graziano said while the frequency of juvenile offenses is clearly down, there appears to be a surge in “shock the conscience-type” crimes committed by young people.

“When you are talking about the cab driver and some of these other serious crimes, you generally don’t associate that with a juvenile, but it’s happening,” Chief Graziano said. “I relate that to a 15-year-old today not being the same as a 15-year-old 20 years ago.”

Both he and Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola pointed to the “desensitization” of modern society, where juveniles are exposed to a level of violence and gore - in the media, on the Internet, in video games - unlike anything encountered by previous generations.

“When we were growing up, you talked to each other - that was your entertainment. … Now they are losing that sense of face-to-face communication that puts a personal aspect on human beings,” Chief Graziano said.

Jarbola said he recently watched a television crime drama with a graphic depiction of an autopsy, including color photographs “of the inside of the body with the organs and everything else.” As a prosecutor, he likely would be barred from showing such photos to jurors in a homicide case and “yet you’re seeing something like this on network TV.”

When juveniles become desensitized to violence, they can lose sight of the fact their choices and actions can have serious, potentially life-altering consequences, he said.

“They think it’s OK to be bad,” Jarbola said, “and it’s not.”

In Wayne County, a small, mostly rural county where violent crimes by children have been rare, it is difficult for people to make sense of the cases, District Attorney Janine Edwards said.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around why a 15-year-old would find it necessary to stab repeatedly an 83-year-old woman and then rape her. That is unconscionable,” she said.

Edwards said juvenile crime is certainly not new and, in most cases, the reality of having to stand before a judge or face a probation officer will redirect the offender “into conformity with the law and behavior.”

“But just like in the criminal adult world, you have a handful of juveniles who will commit much more serious crimes,” she said. “That handful is the ones we focus on in times like this, and that handful is the ones that say facing a probation officer, facing a court, facing a district attorney, is not going to alter my criminal behavior.”

Edwards said if she were to create a profile for criminal activity in juveniles, it would include failure in school, family issues, substance abuse, conduct disorders and - in at least some of the serious cases like the two pending in Wayne County - mental health problems.

Nearly every one of those factors was referenced in Lackawanna County Judge Trish Corbett’s courtroom on Oct. 5 when she sentenced Aazis Richardson, 17, in the shooting death of taxi driver Vincent Darbenzio in a dispute over a $7.42 fare. Richardson, who was 16 at the time of the May 2014 slaying, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to 45 years to life in prison.

Judge Corbett said anyone who delved into Richardson’s background as a child growing up in a violence-plagued “war zone” in Newark, New Jersey, would hardly be surprised he became a killer.

“You’d say, ‘Well, sure he did. Why wouldn’t he? It’s all he knew,’” she said.

Judge Corbett, who presides over most cases involving youthful offenders in the county, said the first obligation of juvenile court is to rehabilitate, but that assumes the offenders have received some treatment before they find themselves standing in front of her.

That never happened with Richardson, she said, even though it was identified early in his life that intervention was needed.

“The number of times social services should have stepped in and didn’t or stepped in and didn’t follow through is mind-boggling,” Judge Corbett said.

David J. Palmiter Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology and counseling at Marywood University, said what Judge Corbett described is “just tragically common.”

Studies show up to 90 percent of all young people will have a mental health issue at some point during their childhood, but as many as four out of five children who need mental health care will never receive it, Dr. Palmiter said.

At the same, the large majority of juveniles who commit crimes suffer from one type or another of conduct disorder, he said.

In younger children especially, the disorder can manifest itself in aggressive, antisocial behavior and, in more serious cases, the child experiences a fascination with and is entertained by violence, he said. If left untreated, the odds of it persisting “are pretty significant.”

Adolescent-onset conduct disorder usually comes down to poor parental monitoring, Dr. Palmiter said. Unsupervised teens get together with other unsupervised teens “and there is this synergy that goes off in a dysfunctional direction,” particularly when alcohol or drugs are added to the mix.

“I think when you have that kind of cauldron bubbling, all kinds of spillage can happen in a culture, and some is what we’re talking about, some of these disturbing, painful stories of individual eruptions,” Dr. Palmiter said.

When an offender enters the juvenile justice system, the goal is to ensure the child receives all of the treatment and support necessary to put him on the path to rehabilitation, said Rich Clifford, director of Lackawanna County Juvenile Probation Department.

There is an expectation that can take place in a short period - a year or two - even though the reality is some juveniles need far more extensive services, he said.

“And, the thing is when they get into the adult system, the services are less than we have,” Clifford said.

Castellano said no one ever wants to believe a young offender is a lost cause.

However, as the number of juvenile crimes involving weapons and violence ticked upward during his time in the district attorney’s office, Castellano said he also encountered more offenders who displayed an absolute lack of respect for other people, their property and the laws and mores of society.

Moving forward, that’s what worries him the most - that lack of respect.

“Unfortunately, we have seen situations where authority figures have not made a difference in redirecting their behavior,” he said. “If that’s the case, you can do nothing but prosecute them and contain them from the community to protect everybody else.

“What else can you do? When it becomes no longer a question of rehabilitation in the juvenile system, then it’s pure prosecution in the adult system, and we have had many cases like that.”





Information from: The Times-Tribune, https://thetimes-tribune.com/

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