Juvenile crime is on the rise in Columbia County, but a special unit of the sheriff's office is working to stem the tide.
"These things are like a wave in the ocean," said Sgt. Harold Clack, leader of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office Juvenile Crime Abatement Unit. "For example, when I was working on stats at the start of the juvenile abatement unit in 1996, we had 321 juvenile cases. Then, in 1999, it rose to 697. That was really the catalyst for (Sheriff Clay Whittle) to start this unit."
In the first half of 2003, there were 390 reported juvenile offenses, according to crime statistics provided by the sheriff's office. That is 67 more over the first half of 2002.
Clack said that one of the reasons for the increase is the growing number of juveniles living in Columbia County.
"We've gotten a lot more aggressive in addressing this, because we knew the stats were up," Clack said. "You have the realize the target population in our county has gone up, a lot. More juveniles, more juvenile crime."
Clack's unit handles any offense where a juvenile is involved or suspected. The unit works cases involving child death, child abuse and family violence. The squad is comprised of two forensic interviewers, two certified gang investigators and two family violence investigators.
In addition to conducting investigations, juvenile abatement also trains other deputies on how to spot juvenile offenses and runs a program to deter juveniles away from crime.
"The average officer doesn't want to deal with juvenile cases," Clack said. "They don't understand why a juvenile can't be punished the same way as an adult. Now, our people realize there are things that can be done. We go through annual training with all of the deputies. We train them so they know to question the kid and don't just let things slide."
A primary function of the unit is to stop juvenile offenses before they happen. Deputies and parents often refer troubled youth to Clack, who then enters them into a program he started called Fear Of God.
"It's like a scare-them-straight program," he said. "We process them through the system, and let them talk to some convicts, and let them see what they're in for, among other things. It's been very successful."
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