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Juvenile Pall

Youth violence is on the rise in Shelby County.

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At a glance, the charges against Alfredo Pavon and Abraham Nunes make them look like seasoned criminals: four counts of aggravated assault and four counts of attempted first-degree murder each.

Pavon and Nunes are accused of firing shots at four teenagers -- wounding one -- on September 27th near Kimball and Merrycrest. And at 17 years old, they are two of the most recent examples of juveniles involved in serious crimes.

So far this year, 143 adolescents have been transferred to Criminal Court to be tried as adults. Last year, 172 adolescents in total were tried as adults. The year before, 97 adolescents were. The numbers reflect an upward trend in juveniles committing serious crimes.

"We're seeing a breakdown in parental oversight, and in many cases, the parents are involved in criminal activity themselves," says Sheriff Mark Luttrell. "There's a social web that's woven in a family, and if you miss that, you have a tendency to run unfettered. That causes these kids to gravitate towards criminal activity."

The District Attorney's 2005 annual report, released last week, shows an almost 40 percent increase from 2004 to 2005 in adolescents prosecuted for "major violent crimes." Those crimes include murder, rape, aggravated robbery, carjacking, and aggravated assault.

In 2005, 23 young people were prosecuted for first-degree murder, while only one was tried for that crime in 2003 and seven in 2004.

"We're seeing a more aggressive effort on the part of gangs to recruit at the middle school level," says District Attorney Bill Gibbons. "When [children are] recruited, they have to show their worth by committing violent crime."

Gibbons estimates that many of these youngsters are between 14 and 15 years old. While gangs used to have an understanding that gang business was to be conducted outside of schools, he says, they've begun operating while school is in session.

"There's less parental or adult pro-social engagement, so kids are just making it up," says Leon Caldwell, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Memphis. "They're all saying, I just want to belong to something. They're getting bolder and brasher and that speaks to the level of emotional distress these kids are exhibiting."

Though the numbers are increasing, they're still lower than those exhibited in 1996, the highest year for juvenile incidents in recent decades. Comparing 1996 to 2005, there was an overall 35 percent decrease in the number of juveniles prosecuted for major violent crimes.

Luttrell says juvenile crime began to decrease in 1997, and the numbers didn't begin to rise again until 2004. The sheriff's office has begun training school teachers and resource officers in how to identify certain criminal characteristics in students.

"We're going to every middle school and talking to student assemblies about the repercussions of violent crime," said Gibbons. "We want to reduce the number of young people who want to commit violent crimes in the first place."

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