Conference today seeks to identify problems facing youths

June 23, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

The Columbia Foundation today will sponsor a countywide conference on children and youth to identify problems facing that large segment of the county's population and to develop a plan of action.

Barbara K. Lawson, executive director for the independent foundation, said 240 people from various groups that work with young people have signed up for the free, one-day conference, which will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's Kossiakoff Center in North Laurel.

Representatives from the school system, health department, churches and synagogues, police department, juvenile services and some teen-agers themselves are among those expected to attend and express their concerns about the well-being of youngsters, Ms. Lawson said.

There was so much interest that organizers have started a waiting list for the conference, which has no set agenda and will have plenty of time for open discussion.

"Participants in the conference will identify the issues they're concerned about," Ms. Lawson said. "We want to hear from the community."

The conference is believed to be the first of its kind in more than 10 years, said Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the county's citizens services.

It grew out of a committee headed by school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey that convened a year ago to review the needs of the county's young people.

There are 52,514 county residents age 19 and under, according to 1990 data from the Maryland Department of State Planning. Also, 34,278 youngsters are enrolled in county public schools.

Despite the presence of a Teen Center in Columbia and another scheduled to open there this fall, local teen-agers often complain that there is little in the way of recreational activity for them, other than visiting the Columbia mall or hanging out with their friends.

Idleness can lead to serious trouble, said Assistant State's Attorney Bobbie Fine, the county's only juvenile prosecutor. She plans to make the increase in juvenile crime a topic at today's conference.

In 1989, Ms. Fine prosecuted 320 juvenile cases. That total rose to 558 in 1993. By May of this year, she already had prosecuted 356 cases, compared with 276 at the same time last May.

"My workload is out of balance," Ms. Fine said.

Juveniles have graduated from shoplifting to more serious crimes, such as robberies and sexual offenses, she said. Juveniles account for nearly 80 percent of the vehicles stolen in the county. Between 1993 and 1992, 2,008 vehicles were stolen.

Ms. Fine said that juvenile crimes usually occur after school or between 1 a.m and 5 a.m. when "these kids are supposed to be home."

Meanwhile, society pays the price, she said.

"Anytime we lock a kid up . . . it's costing the state, it's costing us citizens, at least $30,000 a year," Ms. Fine said.

To curtail juvenile crime, Ms. Fine said educational and vocational programs need to be established.

She is developing an educational program for first-time offenders who commit misdemeanors and are at risk of dropping out of school. If the youngsters complete the program, their nonviolent charges could be dropped.

Ms. Fine said she would like today's conference to open people's eyes. "Maybe parents will look a little closer in their own homes," she said.

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