One night in September, Denise Harris found her 12-year-old son, Antonio, who had been missing for three days, on an East Baltimore street corner with six vials of cocaine in his pocket.
She called the police.
"I did it for two reasons -- to scare him, and because I thought I could get help for him that way," Ms. Harris said. "But it didn't work."
It didn't work because the case disappeared for eight months into the paperwork black hole of the Baltimore Police Department, where juvenile cases have routinely stalled for months, as witnesses disappear, victims grow frustrated and memories fade. The delays teach children like Antonio a perverse first lesson of juvenile delinquency in Baltimore: Nothing happens. Even when you get arrested, nothing happens.
When the police handcuffed him that first time, "I was afraid they would put me away," says Antonio, now just turned 13, an amiable youth with a gap-toothed smile."But they let my mother carry me home. And two days later, I was back out there selling."
The Police Department's paperwork tangle is the gateway to a beleaguered juvenile justice bureaucracy where both swift punishment and timely assistance to children in trouble are rare.
A commission that looked at the city's Juvenile Court last year was "shocked" by the shortcomings of the juvenile justice system, says its chairman, George L. Russell Jr., a Baltimore lawyer and former judge.
"It's simply a factory for creating criminals," Mr. Russell said. "Some of these kids can be saved, but there's no time or resources for anybody to save anybody. It's one of the saddest things I've witnessed."
In the 1990s, this troubled system faces a severe challenge. After falling for most of the 1980s, juvenile arrests in Baltimore have climbed 27 percent since 1988, to 12,274 last year, even as the teen-age population continued to drop. About one in five people arrested for violent crimes and nearly one in three of those arrested for serious property crimes is under 18.
But the number of arrests does not tell the whole story. The character of juvenile crime and juvenile delinquents in the city has changed dramatically during the past decade under the impact of drugs, teen pregnancy and economic blight.
Baltimore's Juvenile Court still sees plenty of youths from intact families in stable neighborhoods, brought in for truancy, shoplifting or vandalism.
But today the system is flooded with children who can rattle off the names of automatic weapons, who have never seen a weekly allowance but have handled wads of money from drug receipts, who have grown up to the crackle of gunfire and seen its victims bleeding on the sidewalk.
More juvenile offenders than in past decades have suffered neglect or abuse at the hands of impoverished parents who are often just 15 or 16 or 17 years older than they are. Such families spawn precocious criminals, and 11-year-old sex offenders and 12-year-olds with guns no longer raise any eyebrows in juvenile court.
The jaded feeling is mutual: Juvenile Court no longer frightens many juveniles. "Twenty years ago, kids came to court scared to death," says Mary Ann Saar, who was prosecuting juvenile cases in the early 1970s and who today is secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Services. "Now they come in and laugh. It's a badge of courage to mock the law."
Often that casual defiance is born in a child's first encounter with the law. Society sends a juvenile offender an indelible message in its response to his first transgression, and the message sent in Baltimore is simple enough for any 12-year-old to understand.
'Mind Set on Trouble'
Baltimore police took eight months, from Sept. 9 until May 11, merely to pass the paperwork on Antonio's September cocaine arrest to the Department of Juvenile Services. Juvenile Services duly processed the papers and sent them on for prosecution to the state's attorney. The case is scheduled for its first court hearing today, nearly 11 months after the arrest -- unless there is another delay.
In the meantime, Antonio has not been sitting penitently at home awaiting justice. He missed 114 days of school, and his growing arrest record suggests why.
While the paperwork on his first arrest lay stranded in the Police Department, he was caught stealing a dirt bike in East Baltimore; attempting to steal a bicycle from a yard in Eastpoint, Baltimore County; shoplifting cookies from a Super Pride on East Chase Street; throwing a bottle or rock and hitting a passing woman in the head near his elementary school; walking down Frederick Avenue at lunchtime carrying a rifle; and selling cocaine to a pregnant woman in East Baltimore.