Crimes on the Rise in Amish Communities

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An Amish man charged with driving drunk?

Yes, it happens in Lancaster County — perhaps more frequently than one would think.

Drunken driving, along with sex abuse, are the crimes most often committed by local members of Plain sects.

In fact, more Amish and Old Order Mennonites are being charged here than ever before, according to local law-enforcement officials and one Amish leader.

"There are more of us now," said the leader, a 70-year-old man from Leola. "Thirty or 50 years ago, the church could keep a tighter cap on it."

The man said a steady rise in population, along with new technology -- mainly the Internet, cellphones and smartphones -- has led to more Plain people facing charges.

"Today, they are more apt to get into trouble," said the leader, who asked not to be identified because Amish culture frowns on individuals calling attention to themselves. "Years ago, there didn't seem to be as many (crimes)."

Law-enforcement officials said that crimes committed by Plain folks still make up a very small percentage of the overall crime rate here.

Mark Wilson, director of county parole/probation services, said about 9,000 people here are currently under court supervision.

Roughly 100 of them are Amish and Old Order Mennonites, he said.

Still, that's an increase from years ago, locals said.

"Some of it might have been overlooked or accepted (in their communities) years ago," Wilson said.

"We pretty much took care of our own," the Amish leader said.

Nowadays, it's also harder for Plain-sect parents to keep an eye on their kids, the leader said.

"They're not down on the farm the way most were years ago," he said.

Many, he said, now work construction-type jobs and tend stands at markets among the English.

"They are exposed. They have the phones," he said. "They are told to stay away from smartphones and the Internet because we don't want it. We don't want it!"

Police enforcement, overall, has increased within Plain communities, local officials said.

District Attorney Craig Stedman has a panel of law-enforcement and court officials who meet regularly with Plain-sect elders and leaders.

The leaders have even taken tours of Lancaster County Prison.

It has led to increased awareness within the communities.

"There has been (education) and there will be more," the Amish leader said.

"It's an evolution, so to speak. This isn't something that just happened," said Strasburg police Chief Steven Echternach, one of Stedman's liaisons. "There had been some naiveté to the ways of the world."

Wilson estimated that more than three-quarters of Plain people under supervision committed DUIs or sex offenses. Stedman agreed that those are the most common offenses.

Locals pointed to several reasons why.

-- Regarding drunk-driving arrests, young members of Plain sects seem most susceptible, officials said.

Young men brought up in Amish communities are allowed to drive motor vehicles up until the time they join the church.

"It's accepted," the Amish man said, "if they are not yet with the church."

He estimated about 10 to 15 percent of those who are allowed actually drive motor vehicles.

"They might have to park it off the property or down the road," said New Holland police Lt. Jonathan Heisse, another of Stedman's liaisons to the Plain sects.

-- Rumspringa, described by locals as a period of young folks "sowing their wild oats" before joining the church, can be a risky time.

Echternach called it a "rite of passage, and not all within their community agree it is a good idea."

"That would put you in a certain amount of risk for underage drinking, DUI," the Amish man said.

-- Members of Plain sects who have joined the church also can be charged with drunk-driving.

"There have been DUIs with horse and buggies and bikes," Heisse said. "As funny as it sounds, it is a vehicle. And it does occur."

The answers aren't as clear regarding sex crimes.

One thing is certain, the abuse is committed against their own people, local officials said.

"They are a community in all aspects," Echternach said.

Another certainty: Plain-sect offenders here are male.

"I'd be hard-pressed to think of a single female under supervision," Wilson said.

"Our girls are more shy," the Amish leader said. "Not in the limelight."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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