The number of juvenile criminal cases in Luzerne County remained about the same last year — 369 compared to 353 in 2014 — but more juveniles are being charged as adults, county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said in her recent annual report.
The determination to charge juveniles as adults is based on the severity of the alleged crime and a juvenile’s criminal history, Salavantis told the county council last week.
These cases often require both her office and the county public defender’s office to spend thousands of dollars on experts to present opposing views on whether each juvenile should be charged as an adult, she said.
Salavantis said her office is seeing “much higher” numbers of these cases but didn’t have ready statistics.
The trend is “very upsetting,” she told the council.
“Some of these individuals look like they’re 9 years old. They’re walking through with handcuffs on and you know what they’ve done and how — I’m trying to be polite when saying it — how they’re not nice people, and this is what we’re seeing on a regular basis coming out of our juvenile unit.”
The office’s juvenile unit also has concluded more follow-up care also is needed for young offenders who are charged as juveniles and undergo treatment, she said.
Some juveniles are slipping back into crime when they return to friends or relatives who were a bad influence on them, she said.
“They’re addressing it in these facilities, but then they’re put back into that situation, and that’s why we’re seeing these kids, these repeat offenders, coming through the system,” Salavantis said.
County Councilman Harry Haas noted the council legislative committee he chairs will be publicly meeting with area legislators Tuesday and asked what issues Salavantis believes they should address.
Salavantis recommended additional funding to expand the county’s drug treatment court, which allows addicted non-violent offenders to get their charges dismissed by staying drug-free and completing customized treatment programs.
“I would say 80 if not 85 percent of the crime that’s committed is because of addiction, so we need to find different ways to address those issues,” Salavantis said. “Treatment court has been so successful.”
Local police departments also need more funding to target drugs, she told the council. She pointed to Hazleton as an example, saying it has 36 active police officers and a “growing and changing” population.
“They’re just suffering right now, and they need help,” she said of Hazleton.
Salavantis said her office’s nine detectives devote much of their time to Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre because “that’s where we see a lot of our issues.”
County Councilman Robert Schnee, who is from the Hazleton area, said Hazleton needs at least 10 more police officers.
“We’re losing the war in Luzerne County,” Schnee said, referring to the drug problem. “They took control of the streets in Hazleton.”
Councilman Rick Williams asked the district attorney if she supports police regionalization.
“I think it would be beneficial,” said Salavantis, who has been working with Pittston area municipalities planning a regional force.
Larger, consolidated police departments could have trained detectives and full-time officers, she said. The county has 48 police departments, she said.
“When I say that to other counties, they don’t even know what to say,” Salavantis said. “It makes it very difficult.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.