Justice system in peril, study says Rise in teen-age population cited

December 17, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

The number of Maryland teen-agers is expected is rise rapidly for the rest of this decade after falling for many years, threatening to overwhelm the state's already strapped juvenile justice system, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist said yesterday.

"We're going to be seeing a lot more young people in the justice system, and we're going to have to plan for it and we're going to have to pay for it," said David M. Altschuler, author of a study on juvenile crime released yesterday by Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies.

The state's population between ages 11 and 17 -- the key years for juvenile crime -- fell by 23 percent from 1980 to 1990.

It has since turned around, as the children of baby boomers reach their teen-age years, and is projected to climb by 29 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the Maryland Office of State Planning.

Even if the arrest rate for juveniles remains steady or declines, Dr. Altschuler said, the swelling number of teen-agers inevitably will produce more young offenders.

"We have to look very carefully at alternatives to incarceration and expensive, out-of-home placement," he said.

"If we don't, it's going to break the bank."

The cost of detaining one youth for a year at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the state's largest facility for young offenders, is more than $50,000.

Dr. Altschuler, agreeing with other academic experts on youth corrections, said that large, costly "training schools" such as Hickey should be replaced with a few, much smaller, secure facilities for violent youths and a large array of community-based programs for less dangerous offenders.

Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Services, who attended Dr. Altschuler's briefing, confirmed his projection of a rising caseload.

She said the number of juveniles handled by the department increased 17 percent in the last two fiscal years.

"They're coming, and they're already here. We're already behind the curve in planning for it," Ms. Saar said.

The Department of Juvenile Services has been hit by a succession of budget cuts over the last two years even as its workload has increased.

Maryland's short-term detention facilities for juveniles are chronically crowded, and a number of community programs have been scaled back or closed.

Dr. Altschuler's study, the first in a series of State of the Region papers from the Institute for Policy Studies, analyzed arrest numbers and rates in Maryland and Baltimore from 1986 to 1990.

He found that in 1990, juveniles -- under Maryland law, persons 17 and younger -- accounted for one in seven arrests in the state in 1990, including one in five arrests for serious violent crimes.

But only about 10 percent of all juvenile arrests were for serious, violent crimes, which include murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.

He said arrest rates may exaggerate the proportion of crimes committed by juveniles, because teen-agers commit crimes in groups more often than adults do.

If five teen-agers are caught in a stolen car, for instance, the single car theft will produce five juvenile arrests.

In Baltimore, where about 70 percent of the population 11 to 17 is black, the study found wide racial disparities in arrests for different crimes.

Of youths arrested in 1990 for selling drugs, for instance, 97 percent were black, though of those charged with drug possession, about 80 percent were black.

But just 45 percent of juveniles arrested for violating liquor laws and 66 percent of those charged with disorderly conduct were black.

Dr. Altschuler said he could not explain the differences, but speculated that they may reflect the choices of police officers on where to patrol and when to make arrests.

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