Anyone listening to the story of Eli Finnerty’s journey into crime will ask, “What could have been done to stop it?”
Hanging out with his friends, sneaking out at night and general rabble-rousing was common when Finnerty was a young child. At age 12, he began smoking marijuana and, when he started high school, his friend group changed.
Soon he was using stronger drugs and entering a criminal world that many struggle to escape.
“That led down a long path of getting in trouble with the police and a whole bunch of other stuff.” Finnerty said. “The people I was around… it made me have a not-so-good view of police and the criminal justice system.”
Over the years, many people were willing to help Finnerty – his mother chief among them.
“There were so many people willing to help you. It didn’t matter,” Finnerty said, adding that change could only happen when he was willing to listen.
This is true for many who go through the criminal justice system and often can lead people to ask what the benefits are to crime prevention efforts.
An uphill battle
Williamsport Assistant Police Chief Jason Bolt has been working with youth in Williamsport for over 17 years. He even spent several years as a school resource officer in the Williamsport Area School District.
Preventing youth from entering a life of crime is always the goal, according to Bolt. However, it’s an uphill battle.
“It all depends on your environment. We are a collection of our experiences,” Bolt said. “If you are someone who has that supportive environment around you, you’re more likely to succeed. Without that supportive environment, you’re more susceptible to have the issues that we see befall so many children.”
The environment can be made up of parents, guardians, teachers, neighbors and more, Bolt said, adding that it’s essential to continually show kids that their actions have consequences.
“It’s almost impossible to truly grow without having that assistance from your neighbors, from your community,” Bolt said.
Don’t be afraid to rock the boat
Parents, teachers and adults in the community should not be afraid to speak up and hold youth accountable, according to retired Lycoming County Juvenile Probation Chief Ed Robbins.
Robbins, who retired after a 30-year career with juveniles in Lycoming County, said prevention starts with the family and members of the neighborhood.
“A lot of folks have apathy and don’t want to ask the hard questions or address that with their children,” Robbins said. “If you want to make a difference in your house and on your block and in your community, you have to rock the boat a little bit.”
Some still ask, “Why bother? They won’t listen.”
For kids like Austin White, who grew up in Hughesville, finding someone who would bother to help him was rare.
White, now 20, became addicted to his grandmother’s prescription medication when he was 6 years old. By age 10, he began smoking weed and soon befriended an older boy who lived down the road and smoked hard drugs.
“Seeing him always getting high on these harder drugs normalized it in my mind,” White said. “I looked up to him as a role model, but looking back on it now, he didn’t have his own role model. We were both just as screwed as I thought I was at the time.”
At 12 years old, White became addicted to crystal meth — and just about every other drug he could get his hands on, with the exception of heroin.
“I went from 12 to 19 fully addicted to crystal meth,” he said.
But the moment that changed White’s life would be when he was 19 and stood outside his ex-girlfriend’s trailer with his probation officer.
While he didn’t have drugs on him, White did have four needles, which are considered drug paraphernalia and could send him back to prison for a long time.
The officer counted each needle as he threw it into a dumpster. White knew this would mean he could no longer be charged with possessing the needles.
“Rather than him sending me back to jail, he sent me straight to rehab because of the needles,” White said. “I was stubborn and didn’t want to go, until I got there.”
“He helped me rather than putting me right back into jail, because that wouldn’t have helped my addiction.”
As youth crime skyrocketed in the 1990s, Lycoming County Senior Judge Thomas Raup instituted the Youth Commissions throughout communities in the county.
These commissions were meant to address minor crime from first time youth offenders without the need for charges to be filed.
Over the years, many of the area commissions dwindled. But, recent efforts spearheaded by Judge Joy McCoy have seen them reinstated in the past year.
“The police officer agrees to hold off on the filing of charges if the youth agrees to participate in the commission,” McCoy said. By bringing the youth who are first-time offenders before the commission, the ultimate punishment will be a type of community service, keeping the youth out of the criminal justice system, while providing them with a community mentor to track their progress.
In Williamsport, the commission has 25 members who work or live within the jurisdiction of the Williamsport Bureau of Police.
“We want them to have a personal buy-in because this kid either lives in my community or I work in the community where this kid is,” McCoy said.
In addition to Williamsport, there are youth commissions in Montoursville and Hughesville, according to McCoy.
For White, knowing that there are people in the community taking an interest in youth crime and keeping youth out of the system is encouraging. White can’t remember a time when his father wasn’t in prison and many of his family members assumed he would follow a similar path.
For many years, he did.
The lack of support and easy access to drugs made it confusing for White to know what he was meant to do with his life.
“People need to realize that just because there is a child doing wrong, doesn’t mean that he’s going to be a bad person when he grows up,” White said.
For Finnerty, the decision to get out of a life of crime came after he realized he was going to have a daughter.
“Everything was being taken away from me. I didn’t have a job…. I found out my girlfriend was pregnant and I was going to have a kid. So I’m done. Not gonna do it again,” Finnerty said.
He had the support of his mother, his probation officer and other members of the court system to fall back on and now Finnerty holds down a successful job, provides for his family and owns his own home.