Juvenile lessons

July 23, 1992

Young Antonio, 12 when his mother turned him in to the police, puts a human face on the dry statistics of the Baltimore Bar Association's 1991 juvenile justice report. It is a face of dire need in a subculture of hopelessness, and the lessons Antonio and his friends have drawn from the slothfulness of law enforcement is that almost nothing happens, no matter what crimes they commit. By the time something does happen, the youths involved have difficulty connecting the dots between the court action and the precipitating criminal incidents.

The adults who run drug trafficking have known that since the early 1980s. That's why kids as young as 12 are out there selling drugs in the first place. Not only do they take less pay. It costs less for lawyers to defend them in Juvenile Court. And the system takes so long gearing up to do anything when the youngsters finally get caught that getting "busted" has little effect on them. Thus, Baltimore is seeing more and more young people recruited into the drug trade, even provided with handguns and bullet-proof vests for the violence that always travels with traffic in illicit drugs.

But there are other lessons to be learned. The first is that excuses will never fix a badly broken system whose leaders "hope" to cut paperwork delays in juvenile cases to "two to three months." Reports of serious charges against a juvenile should go from the police to state Juvenile Services personnel immediately upon arrest. The point cannot be made that society considers juvenile crime a big thing when a young arrestee simply heads on home, unsure when he'll go to court and with no more supervision than his or her parents can give.

The second lesson is that treatment services for Antonio and the other children like him must be radically overhauled. Antonio's mother tried to get help when she saw him headed into trouble, but was turned away. As Antonio's behavior shows, he really could not wait wait until a counseling slot became available. Neither could society.

Moreover, a 12-year-old who commits crimes as serious as those charged to Antonio has lost his way so badly he cannot straighten out without a new order of counseling and supervision. It should reach Antonio and his cohorts at home as well as in the lockup, and it should provide services to help their families keep up the struggle to save them from the drug XTC undertow in the streets. At the last resort, it should provide intensive, residential therapy to redirect Antonio's energies toward the education and social responsibility without which he will have no chance of reaching a healthy, productive adulthood.

That cannot happen without a reordering of priorities, by the city and the state. That is politically difficult, but there is no alternative. Either Maryland spends money to save Antonio now, or it spends vastly more later for his penitentiary bed.

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