A shootout in the Murphy Homes project Monday night dramatized the out-of-control nature of the city's drug crisis. Two plainclothes officers, responding to a tip, entered a fifth-floor hallway and identified themselves. They were met by a hail of .357 Magnum shots. The officers survived unhurt, but the shooter died and four other people were wounded in the fusillade of return fire.
That shootout, and the alleged drug dealing which provoked it, involved adults, as did a Christmas 1991 incident which killed two women. But two reports by the Bar Association of Baltimore City show that as bad as things have become for adults ensnared in the drug underworld, it's getting even worse for juveniles:
* Drug convictions in the Circuit Court grew 39 percent in fiscal 1991. Overall, Circuit Court criminal filings increased 81 percent.
* Up to 90 percent of all city felony prosecutions are for "drug-driven" offenses.
* Juvenile arrests for drug distribution rose 41 percent in 1991.
* Despite that, more than 50,000 adult and juvenile warrants for probation violations, failure to appear in court and other charges go unserved, partly because there's no one to serve them. There is only one juvenile judge, and he has no place to put many of the juvenile detainees who are served.
Budget cuts, forced on state and local officials by revenue shortfalls, exacerbate the problem. Drug treatment programs, the best shot at reducing recidivism, are being cut back or eliminated. Facilities to hold juvenile offenders, especially those increasingly arrested as suspected dealers at open-air drug markets, had limited capacity even before the cuts. There is simply no place for many of the teen-aged offenders involved in the brutally violent drug gangs taking over the streets of many formerly quiet, if poor, neighborhoods.
Time magazine recently carried a devastating report of conditions in Baltimore's creaky juvenile-court system. The bar association report cited a study by the National Center for State Courts which pin-pointed the worst problems. These were situations that delay prosecutions, return violent offenders to the streets for months at a time without trial and provide many chances for offenders to evade treatment commensurate with the seriousness of their crimes. That cannot go on if Baltimore is to get a handle on its worsening drug ills. Money must be provided to protect the safety of people on public thoroughfares and in their homes. We have to save tomorrow's young citizens from the depredations of today's street hustlers.