I was in my car recently listening to news radio when I heard that one of our deputies was killed trying to apprehend an armed robbery suspect. I was shocked and pained — I knew the deputy. What followed magnified my pain. It quickly morphed to anger — the suspect was Jonathon Bun, a 17 year old with juvenile court history in my county.
In this business we must ask ourselves: “Could we have done anything different to prevent this tragedy?” I understand Mr. Bun is innocent until proven guilty, but solely for the purpose of self-assessment, there is much we can learn from Mr. Bun and his journey through the juvenile justice system that may improve the way we do business — that could reduce the number of victims-and maybe save lives.
We know from the research that 8 percent of all kids arrested for the first time are serious high-risk offenders. We call them the “8 Percent Problem.” This small percentage of juveniles are arrested repeatedly (a minimum of four times within a 3-year period) and are responsible for about 55 percent of repeat cases. In other words, most of the serious juvenile crimes are committed by a handful of kids in our communities. If we can target that 8 percent, we can significantly reduce serious juvenile crime. We call that the “8 Percent Solution.”
We have also learned from the research that this “8 Percent Problem” population possesses identifiable characteristics. One of these characteristics includes first referral to the court at the early ages of 13 or younger and these first referrals are typically low-level offenses. Our juvenile justice systems are constructed with an aim to give kids — especially young kids — a break using diversion and informal adjustments. This is a good thing because kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. It’s not a good thing if we fail to assess kids referred at an early age for the other identifiable characteristics. We now know we cannot assume early age and the non-serious nature of the offense dictates diversion — we must assess for other high risk factors.
In addition to being referred to court at an early age, the other characteristics of high-risk offenders include:
- Significant family problems that may include abuse, neglect, criminal family members and/or lack of parental supervision and control;
- Problems at school such as truancy, failing more than one class, or suspensions and/or expulsions;
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse; and
- Anti-social behaviors such as gang involvement, running away, and stealing.
The solution to the “8 Percent Problem” begins with improving our assessment tools for early age first-time offenders regardless of the nature of the offense. It’s easy for juvenile justice systems to divert low -risk youth because most are responsive to diversion programs – the recidivist rate is low. We never see them again and if we do, it’s for another low-level non-violent act. But 8 percent of those kids referred at an early age that do come back are high-risk offenders and they return with more serious offenses. Maybe we should re-define low risk for diversion and not limit it to age and first offense as many systems do.
For example, Mr. Bun’s first referral was at age 10 when he brought a pocket knife to school. It did not involve any threat or assault and the school disciplined him. Due to his age he was found mentally incompetent. The case was dismissed. Could we have done an assessment anyway? If he possessed these other characteristics at 10, could we have provided services through a competency plan? The answer to these questions is yes.
Three years later he was arrested for burglary. He and a friend broke into a school. At first blush it would be easy to attribute this to that “neurologically wired to do stupid stuff,” but there is more to his story.
Mr. Bun was smoking at least two blunts (pot) a day and doing meth at least twice a month. He was beaten into the Bloods — a notorious street gang — and was frequently running away from home. He possessed every characteristic of the high risk offender. He is now the kid that scares you — and he is only 13.
He was placed on probation-intensive supervision with house arrest and made to go to the Evening Reporting Center — an afterschool program for high risk kids. Apparently, he didn’t like it — he ran away. He was found, detained and committed to the state. Despite his tender years, he was too great a risk to keep in the community for treatment.
Other studies reveal effective interventions for high-risk offenders. Youth especially because their brains are still under construction — they can be re-wired-or at least a good number of them.
It’s not good to do meth and marijuana at age 13 when the brain is under construction. The research shows that adolescent drug use will re-wire the brain in ways that promote anti-social behaviors — and maybe permanently.
When he was returned to the community, he committed another burglary — this time a residence. He was detained and re-committed to the state. Mr. Bun completed his order of commitment, but with no improvement whatsoever.
Keeping in mind Mr. Bun is innocent until proven guilty — the story is unfolding through testimony and statements. When pulled over by the deputy, Mr. Bun pulled his gun out. The driver asked him what he was doing and told him to put it up — Bun exited the car shooting at the deputy and killing him. It was senseless.
Yes, we removed him from the community at age 13, but what if we had assessed him at 10? I wonder if he had any high-risk characteristics at 10. If so, could appropriate interventions re-directed his life away from drugs, gangs and improve his family function? Maybe, I don’t know, but in my position and responsibility to kids, families and the community, I cannot afford not to ask “What if?”
Then again some of these “8 Percent” refuse help-for whatever reason. When a kid wants to play Humpty Dumpty and refuses to get down from the wall despite our efforts to intervene, no one can put him back together when he falls. The sad reality is that not all kids can be saved.