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Juvenile court judge speaks on gangs

By Ed Brock

There is no single answer to solving Clayton County's gang problem, according to Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske.

Speaking with the animation of a preacher on Sunday morning, Teske told the Kiwanis Club of Southlake Tuesday about the strategies that can be employed to prevent youth violence.

"None of these strategies alone are going to have an effect on reducing gang activity," Teske said.

Teske's program was the third and last in a series the club has held on the subject of youth violence. Previous speakers were representatives from the Clayton County Police Department and Clayton County Public Schools.

The strategies Teske outlined included identifying the pathways that lead to gang membership, such as family situations.

"Many of these young people come from families that have conflict," Teske said.

Often the parents have criminal records as well. Teske gave an example of one boy who asked to meet with him in chambers during a hearing.

"The kid came in and said 'Judge, what do you do when your parents smoke marijuana?'" Teske said.

Misery loves company, Teske said, and that helps lead some youths into gangs.

"They find somebody like them who has the same type of misery and then they have somebody paying attention to them," Teske said.

A strict law enforcement approach doesn't work, Teske said, but instead "you have to mix it up with law enforcement and treatment."

And not just any treatment program will do. For example, the program should focus on high risk youth because treating a low risk juvenile (one less likely to continue to engage in criminal activity) like a high risk juvenile can lead to an increase in youths repeating their offenses. The program should take seven to nine months to complete and should occupy 40 to 70 percent of the youth's time, especially after school.

For example, one program in place in Clayton County is the evening reporting center where youthful offenders are sent after school and made to study or engage in other positive activities.

The courts must be very careful in putting an offender in detention, Teske said.

"If we put kids in detention who don't need to be there all we're doing is making them better criminals," Teske said. "Gangs need to recruit, too, and the best place to do it is in the detention center."

High risk youths, however, must be dealt with more strictly so that they do not present a risk to the community. Any teen with gang involvement is considered high risk and does not qualify for pre-trial diversion programs like the evening reporting center, he said.

For that reason 80 percent of the juvenile offenders on probation in the county have gang affiliations, Teske said. However, they are less likely now to participate in gang activity while on probation now because of increased supervision.

Teske's presentation, and the two that came before it, were eye openers to Kiwanis member Mike Jones. Jones works for Randstad employment agency and has seen the result of having a criminal past.

"A lot of these guys have felonies and criminal records and I can't put them to work," he said.