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Youths in trouble are new breed of criminal

News item: Jason Harless, 17, and 16-year-old Jason McCoy were sentenced to prison for a 1988 shooting in the Pinellas Park High School cafeteria. An assistant principal was shot to death; two other people were wounded in a hail of gunfire as hundreds of students watched. News item: Joshua Walther, 16, and Jason Beau Staples, 17, were arrested last April after their 17-year-old friend William "Billy" Casey was found shot to death in some Oldsmar woods. A 15-year-old boy who witnessed the murder was nearly strangled.

News item: Two boys, ages 15 and 16, were arrested in connection with the armed robbery of a Clearwater Burger King restaurant last month. One was armed with a snub-nosed .38-caliber handgun.

They are as young as 10 or as old as 17.

Kids in trouble is not a new problem. But the nature of their crimes and the way those crimes are committed have changed.

They are a new breed of criminal. Juveniles are more violent now, officials say, and many are committing crimes that once were associated only with adults.

Last week, some of that violence erupted in a melee at the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center in Largo.

Touched off by a remark made in Spanish, the brawl involved 30 juveniles. The boys' ages ranged from 12 to 17. Nine boys and 11 counselors were injured.

The brawl was the worst in the center's 22-year history, said Bill Gandy of the state Department of

Health and Rehabilitative Services, the agency that oversees the center.

It was indicative of the violent tendencies of juveniles who end up at the center, which houses youngsters who are arrested or taken into custody for other reasons.

Officials attribute much of the increased violence to the onslaught of crack cocaine, a highly addictive and smokable form of powdered cocaine.

"We've seen a different breed of juveniles in the last couple of years," Gandy said. "I don't think any of us would have recognized the social phenomenon caused by crack cocaine. Kids that are coming in right now are much more prone to violent crimes."

"We're seeing more violent crimes, more crimes against persons and more weapons-related crimes," said Elizabeth Reisch, a mental health counselor with the Pinellas public defender's office. "We're seeing adolescents charged with homicides. Those used to be few and far between."

The violence is linked to the allure of big money made selling crack, said Executive Assistant State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Often, violence stems from disputes between drug dealers, he said.

Rather than smashing mailboxes or joyriding, juveniles now are committing more burglaries and strong-arm robberies to support crack habits, McCabe said. The trend is not limited to Pinellas.

"The same thing has happened all over the country," he said.

The crack problem began in Pinellas County in 1986, McCabe said. Juvenile crime began to rise then and took a significant leap last year.

In 1988, the state attorney's office filed 10,761 charges against juveniles, McCabe said. The charges filed in 1989 increased to 13,850 _ a 35 percent jump.

"You can trace a lot of that to the drug situation," McCabe said.

He said juvenile crimes several years ago were relatively minor. Juveniles then also seemed more remorseful when they got caught.

But now, many of the youths seem streetwise, hard and uncaring, he said. They also tend to have an affinity for weapons _ and money to buy them.

Reisch, who counsels youths charged with crimes, has noticed "hair-trigger" reactions among juveniles now. Some children have been abused as infants, which could be another reason for violent tendencies.

"It doesn't excuse their behavior at all, but it makes it more understandable," said Reisch.

"Someone once asked me how I define success. . . . I said, "Look, if my clients don't hurt anybody or kill anybody, I'm happy.' "