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County crime-prevention programs target juvenile offenders

Prevention and intervention are two key words when discussing reducing juvenile crime. For Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom, the two words have led to action and programs.

Backstrom is a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization committed to informing policy makers and the public about the importance of youth-crime prevention and early intervention efforts.

"I believe the most effective thing we can do to reduce crime in America is to invest our time, resources and energy in our nation's children," he said. "This occurs with effective and appropriate early intervention efforts aimed at preventing crime before it occurs and intervening quickly when problems arise."

The Dakota County Attorney's Office coordinates a number of youth accountability programs for first-time offenders involved in the illegal use of alcohol, small amounts of marijuana, and lower-level property offenses.

A more intensive program for second-time users of alcohol or small amounts of marijuana is also available. In 2010, 931 juvenile offenders were referred to various accountability programs as an alternative to court.

Juveniles successfully completing these programs are not prosecuted in juvenile court for these offenses.

"The young people are held accountable for their criminal behavior outside of the criminal process," said Backstrom.

Each program requires the involvement of a parent or guardian and focuses on education and prevention. For most youth accountability programs, the young person must pay for the cost of attending the alternatives to court, pay restitution to the victim, do community work service, write letters of apology and complete a variety of other sanctions in a timely manner.

Another program that has been in operation in Dakota County since 2003 is Juvenile Drug Court. This "problem-solving" court is designed to provide greater oversight and treatment of youth who are chemically addicted. In 2010, 12 to 15 young people were participating in this program at any given time. Juvenile Drug Court handles cases involving any type of crime where alcohol or

drugs are the primary contributing factor for the criminal behavior.

"While nowhere near the problem it is involving adult crime, possession and use of illegal drugs is still a significant concern involving juveniles as well," said Backstrom. "Drug courts involve more interaction between the judge and other criminal justice professions with the juvenile offenders and emphasize more intensive monitoring and treatment."

The Peer Court Program, a joint program of the County Attorney's Office, Community Corrections and District Court, has been in existence since 2000, and is held in seven area high schools. Peer Court allows teens to serve as jurors and personally become involved in resolving the problem of juvenile crime in their community.

"The mission of Peer Court is to proactively address illegal activities of juvenile offenders by encouraging them to take responsibility for their own action," said Backstrom. "It is also a great learning experience for the members who serve as jurors in the process."

In 2010, 28 juveniles were referred to Peer Court. Dakota County District Judge Thomas Poch was instrumental in establishing this program and he continues to be involved in the program.

The Juvenile Firesetter Education and Intervention Program is for young people ages 6 to 17 who exhibit inappropriate behavior about or who are actually caught starting fires. In 2010, 13 Dakota County juveniles were referred to this program. This program includes an education class coordinated by the Dakota County Attorney's Office. It is a joint project with the State Fire Marshal's Office and area fire departments.

The Dakota County Attorney's Office also continues its anti-bullying initiatives, the anti-drug, anti-violence poster and calendar contest, prescription and over-the counter drug abuse prevention programs, and they provide materials to teens to remind them to keep safe when driving.