For the eighth year in a row, the number of charges filed against juveniles has dropped in Dakota County.

The number of juvenile offenders charged with all levels of crimes fell by 12 percent in 2010 over 2009, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said. That decline mirrors a national drop in prosecutions of crimes by those under age 18, he said.

Backstrom said the estimated population of those ages 10 to 17 has risen 3 percent in the county in the past decade, making the decrease in the number of juvenile cases prosecuted all the more notable.

An extreme case involved the eighth-grade Hastings boy who brought a gun to school and tried to fire it last April, only to have it malfunction because he loaded it with the wrong bullets. The boy was convicted of three counts of second-degree assault and remains under extended jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

Backstrom believes, he said, that juvenile crime prevention initiatives, from anti-bullying to anti-drug abuse programs, are helping to reduce crime rates.

The statistics, released by his office last week, are based on the number of solved cases, rather than offenses reported.

Most of the charges against juveniles were for misdemeanors. Those numbers dropped by 13 percent, from 1,320 in 2009 to 1,147 last year.

Prosecutions peaked in 2002, when 2,070 youths were charged.

The county's population of about 400,000 is growing by about 1 percent each year.

Still, the number of youths charged with felony crimes dropped to 203 last year -- 30 fewer than in 2009.

"A steady decrease in the number of juveniles charged with felonies from year to year in Dakota County is remarkable, given our size and growth over the years," Backstrom said.

Roughly 25 to 30 percent of juvenile crimes in the county occur in schools or on school property. Last year, 14 youths were charged with school-related violent offenses, compared to 24 in 2009.

Of the 14, eight were charged with making terroristic threats. Ten more were charged with possessing a dangerous weapon on school property.

The county attorney's office continues with a program, Prioritize Prosecutions in Schools, to work with police and schools in swiftly charging offenses that occur at school activities.

Backstrom continues his anti-bullying initiative, begun in 2002, and also warns students about crimes related to technology.

"Making good choices about sending a text message, e-mail or other form of technology is very important for kids today," he said.

Some kids who use alcohol or small amounts of marijuana or commit low-level property crimes are referred to various "accountability programs" rather than being prosecuted. Last year, 931 juvenile offenders were referred rather than sent to juvenile court.

Dakota County also has a juvenile drug court with "problem-solving" intervention for addicted youths. In that program at any given time last year were 12 to 15 young people whose cases involved drugs or alcohol as a major contributing factor for criminal behavior.

Then there's the peer court, which began in 2000 in seven high schools. Teens serve as jurors to resolve juvenile offenses in their community.

Last year, Backstrom's juvenile and protective services division opened 3,470 files involving delinquency, truancy and protective services. That's a 16 percent decline from the 4,114 files opened in 2009.

The number of violent charges also are down by 12 percent, which Backstrom calls "a positive reflection of the overall safety of our community."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017