Not just from the WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS anymore

     Although criminal activity has traditionally been linked to poverty, a growing percentage of those entering the criminal justice system as perpetrators are female or hail from middle and upper class households.

     This isn't to say female criminals or crime originating from the so-called "right" side of the economic tracks are anomalies — they aren't — but it's becoming more and more commonplace for the perpetrator to be what would have once been considered "atypical."

     History tells us that many cases that have snagged the public eye involved what were seen as unlikely suspects. Consider, for example, the famous case involving two wealthy teens in 1924 Chicago. When Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old boy simply for the thrill of the kill, the country was simultaneously shocked and transfixed by the senseless crime.

     Over subsequent decades, crimes committed by kids — especially those associated with ordinary or upper class upbringings — caught and held the news because they were unusual. And young girls involved in serious criminal activity provided much more titillating media fodder than boys. History records tons of interest in cases like the ones below — all of which received serious attention from both the media and the public:

  • Convicted and imprisoned mass murderer Charles Manson's youthful followers slithered onto the world stage and the view of teenagers as perpetrators shifted. Many of Manson's followers came from households that — while dysfunctional in some ways — were mostly solidly middle-class. And, of course, at the core of his following were a group of innocent-looking young girls.
  • In 1983, California teens Shirley Wolf and Cindy Collier appeared remorseless and almost bored when convicted of beating and stabbing to death an elderly woman for their own entertainment.
  • Sandy Shaw, only 15 years old, and her friends stunned the public when they shot a man to death after Shaw lured him to a deserted place with the express intention of robbing and killing him.
  • Jessica Holtmeyer, a Pennsylvania teen, conspired with others to trap, hang and subsequently beat to death a 15-year-old girl whose only crime was wanting to be Holtmeyer's friend. Even her juvenile accomplices were stunned by Holtmeyer's callousness.

     While these examples are undeniably extreme, examples of kids who don't fit the mold of typical juvenile offender are no longer difficult to find. Cyber crimes, bullying, property offenses and vandalism perpetrated by affluent teens or young girls have become commonplace. And hardcore substance abuse of drugs like heroin — once associated with poverty and desperation — are increasingly present in million dollar homes and on college campuses.

Another Jessica story

     Jessica O'Connell was born and raised in an affluent Atlanta suburb. A good student, O'Connell posted straight A's, graduating near the top of her high school class. While attending the University of Georgia in Athens, O'Connell continued her academic excellence and lived responsibly. She worked to help pay for school and shared an apartment with a boyfriend.

     O'Connell admits that she experimented with drugs a little in high school. "But it was no more than what you might call the 'standard' for my age," she says. "I drank or got high on occasion, but I was careful to never let it interfere with my school or compromise my values."

     This changed when she was introduced to heroin. "I was shocked and nervous at first, but when I found out you don't have to inject heroin, that you can just snort it, I tried it and loved it. For a good while I only did it on special occasions … for about two years it was just something fun to do every now and then," O'Connell says. She adds that at the time, her drug use didn't interfere with her job or classes, but the "honeymoon" didn't last. Soon her habit became more intense.

     "I started using more often, maybe once every two weeks, and then once a week … then the entire weekend. Then I screwed up and made the mistake of using it for several days in a row, and at that point I had become not only mentally, but physically addicted," she says.

     Because O'Connell often had trouble scoring in her "quiet college town," she drove to Atlanta's inner-city areas to buy drugs.

     "I saw a lot of horrible things and went to a lot of scary places," O'Connell says. But despite knowing what she was doing was destroying her life, she continued to use.

     "Gradually my addiction caught up to me. My tolerance got so high that I could not afford to buy the amount of heroin my body needed to function. When I didn't have enough money, I started missing school and work because I was sick. I got behind on my bills and maxed out credit cards that I had no way of paying off. I started selling valuable possessions and borrowing money from friends, a lot of which I never paid back. I ended up dropping out of school after 3 years of college ... I would have graduated one year later," she says.

     "I wound up getting arrested for the first time for a misdemeanor 'theft by taking' when I got caught stealing a few steaks from the restaurant I worked at. I couldn't afford to buy food ... all my income was needed for drugs," she says.

     O'Connell eventually kicked her habit, but not until she was arrested and served jail time. Eventually she substituted alcohol for heroin, became addicted to the alcohol and was arrested and charged twice with driving under the influence. Today she is dry, substance-free and on probation.

     "It is frustrating and humiliating when I think about how much easier and more successful my life would be today if I had not gone down that road," she says.

The rear view mirror

     O'Connell looks back and sees now that she had it all: Money, opportunity and a supportive family and community. Despite knowing that drugs were dangerous and addictive, she went there anyway — and she's certainly not alone.

     It's no secret kids often make poor choices, but in this world of 24/7 media, there seem to be more opportunities to make mistakes, many of them often originating in the child's own home.

     Dr. Robert Hanser, head of the Department of Criminal Justice and director of the Institute of Law Enforcement at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, says that violent crime in general has been declining, with the exception of areas with high gang activity; however, the perpetrator base is no longer simply male and from lower socio-economic brackets. Criminal involvement by nontraditional youth perpetrators undoubtedly reflects the growing influence of the Internet. "Cyber bullying, for example, is an important development we didn't have 10 years ago," Hanser says.

     Not only are there new types of crimes since the Internet became a fixture in most homes — illegal downloads and hacking, for example — but the old stand-by crimes of prostitution and drug dealing receive a boost from the Web's ability to reach kids who might otherwise not have been exposed to them.

     The availability of information has become another factor in affecting the public perception of youth involved in criminal activities. What once might have been a short paragraph on the inside of a daily newspaper across the country is now a featured segment on several news shows, repeated on cable news channels and featured on Yahoo's and AOL's home pages. "You will hear about it much more quickly than you did, say in 1981, before the Internet proliferated," Hanser says.

     One recent case that received tremendous amounts of media play involved a group of Florida cheerleaders who lured another girl to a private home where other girls ganged up and beat her. The victim suffered a concussion and multiple bruises. The entire incident was videotaped — the tape repeated many times on both television news and the Internet.

     "That is what you're seeing among the violent female offenders — they tend to be younger," Hanser says. He notes cases like this tend to reflect a socialization pattern that has emerged over time, saying "It's an almost soulless attitude."

     Hanser recalls a group of teen girls in an affluent Texas suburb that were responsible for a crime spree including armed robberies. "The parents in these families were more focused on careers and keeping up with the Joneses," he says.

     Although Hanser says he doesn't like to blame the parents for the sins of the child, he does admit he believes school teachers are being required too often to act as substitute parents. "It's not realistic to expect teachers to raise a child. The moral elements are supposed to be taken care of at home."

Juvenile offenders

     The Internet, music, video games, television, poor parenting and the gang culture — all are blamed in part for changing youth crime demographics. Ultimately, it's probably a combination of many things that have led to an evolution of the types of kids getting into trouble with the law.

     According to a Bureau of Justice report tracking juvenile offender statistics for a 10-year period from 1993-2003, juveniles were identified as offenders in 25 percent of all nonfatal violent juvenile offenses. Among juvenile offenders in violent crimes, 25 percent were female. White was the predominant offender's race in juvenile-perpetrated violent crimes.

     Drug and alcohol use were present in approximately 10 percent of the cases highlighted by the BJS report. Crime among the better heeled seemed more prevalent — or at least media attention made it seem that way. Reports indicate that the rate of female offenders continues to escalate at a stable rate.

     Entirely new classifications of crime are steadily emerging as technology gives ordinary people an opportunity to reach new heights of criminal behavior. And kids — ready to explore new frontiers — are finding that media offers an attractive cornucopia of innovative ways to fall from grace.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations. She welcomes comments at