20-03-25 Blaine County Old Courthouse 1 Roland.jpg

Blaine County diversion programs are steering more minors away from the criminal justice system, according to a recent state report.

Blaine County saw a small rise in youth arrests in 2020, according to a recent report from the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, but the county continued to see significantly lowered rates of felony charges among minors.

It’s “not surprising” that the county would see an increase in juvenile arrests during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted many young people’s school, family, and social routines, Renee Waite, district liaison supervisor for the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, told the Blaine County commissioners in a presentation Tuesday.

All things considered, though, the numbers presented in the county report represent a continuation of efforts in recent years to bring down youth arrests and felony convictions, Waite said.

In 2019, the number of children and teenagers arrested in Blaine County dropped a dramatic 50% from two years prior, mirroring statistics statewide. Felony charges had also dropped to a fraction of what they were in past years, with just one juvenile felony charge in the county in 2019, compared to 29 the previous year.

County and state officials attribute the changes in recent years to ramped-up efforts to steer more young people away from the criminal justice system, both before and after they’ve committed crimes. That includes county diversion programs—an alternative to formal court action that puts a focus on personal accountability—and collaboration with schools to identify and help kids who may be at risk before their behavior escalates into criminal activity.

There were 77 minors arrested last year, the report shows, compared to 42 arrested in 2019 and 67 in 2018. While more Blaine County youths were arrested in 2020 than in 2018, the number of felony charges filed against juveniles was significantly lower last year: five juvenile felony charges were filed in 2020, compared to 29 in 2018.

The county has also seen a sharp decrease in juvenile status offenses—criminal offenses that can only apply to minors, such as truancy and running away—in recent years. There were zero juvenile status offenses recorded in 2019 or 2020, a steep drop from the 36 offenses logged in 2018.

“Those are more social issues than criminal, and we didn’t really want to get those populations mixed,” Waite said.

A bill passed by the Legislature this year has the potential to lower the number of juvenile misdemeanors in the state in future years, Waite noted. The bill removes an existing state law that says a juvenile who has committed three status offenses may be charged with a misdemeanor.

“We’re really excited that one piece of legislation removes that from the books,” she said.

Blaine County has not had a youth in state custody for two years, according to the report. Statewide, the number of juveniles in state custody has dropped over the past decade to a historic low, Waite said: There were 176 Idaho minors in custody in 2020, compared to upwards of 400 10 years ago.

The average juvenile offender in Blaine County was a 14- to 16-year-old white or Hispanic male, according to the report, a statistic in line with previous years. Meanwhile, the average age of a juvenile in state custody is 17, Waite noted.

“That tells us there’s a lot of intervention happening before [incarceration],” she said.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com