The juvenile crime statistics in Florida are mind-numbing: Every six minutes a youth is arrested in Florida. From 1983 through 1993 violent crime rose nearly 100 percent; weapons crime leapt 160 percent; and homicides jumped over 300 percent. In 1990, 6.5 percent of the juvenile population was referred for delinquency. By 1995 that number had reached 7.7 percent of this same population. Behind each of these numbers are the faces of children from every part of Florida who have descended into a world of crime. Thousands of our youth are becoming hardened criminals who will plague their communities for a lifetime.
Family First decided it was time to move beyond just numbers. With the cooperation of the Department of Juvenile Justice, we explored the life stories of these offenders to gather some clues as to what propelled them into crime. We surveyed 742 juvenile offenders ages 11-18. All had committed serious crimes and were repeat offenders. Since such a survey had never been done before in the state of Florida, we were particularly anxious for the results.
The findings were shocking:
72 percent came from homes where their mother and father were not married;
62 percent reported their fathers lived at home only sometimes or never;
57 percent said their father's influence on them was negative or non-existent.
We also found that the more serious the youth was in trouble with the law, the more strained the relationship with their father had been. For example, of those who had been arrested 0-5 times, 21 percent said their biological father's influence was negative, while 44 percent felt it was positive. For those arrested more than 15 times, however, only 32 percent felt their father was a positive influence, compared to 30 percent who felt his influence was "negative."
How these kids viewed their fathers was determined in part by marital status. Sixty percent of those offenders who said their parents were married felt their father's influence on them was positive. If the parents were not married, that positive rating dipped to 32 percent.
There are no doubt several factors contributing to the juvenile crime problem. However, we need to be aware that the breakdown of the family, and in particular father absence, plays a large role. Our survey results confirm what other states such as California, Illinois and Pennsylvania have already found.
We can always decide to deal with juvenile crime by just building more prisons. But that costs a lot and destroys lives that could be saved. And while we need to deter crime with the threat of punishment, it would also be wise to prevent crime by dealing with the underlying causes. If the survey results tells us anything, it is that responsible fatherhood is an important antidote to crime.There will be no easy answers
How can we begin to put a dent in this problem?
There will be no easy answers. Yet we as a state can work together on all levels. Government can and should look at revising divorce laws so we can limit the number of young people who will grow up fatherless. Businesses can seek ways to adopt family-friendly policies that will allow fathers to be more involved in the lives of their children. And individuals can look for opportunities in their homes and neighborhoods to encourage responsible fatherhood.
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