Rooting out Nuisance Crimes

September 14, 1994

They're referred to as "nuisance crimes," but they are really much more than that. Petty theft, vandalism, auto theft -- they may seem minor compared to more serious offenses, but they can be wrenching and unsettling to the victims. And unlike violent crime, which has declined recently in the growing metropolis of Columbia, nuisance crimes are on the upswing. Teen-agers are the major culprits, making this trend doubly tragic.

Before anyone dismisses the rash of such incidents as a city problem, know that such crimes infect communities throughout the country, including places in Howard County beyond urbanized Columbia. The rural communities of West Friendship and the affluent enclaves that dot the Centennial High School district, for example, are hardly rendered immune by location or economics. Misguided teen-agers steal cars, vandalize homes and otherwise wreak havoc in well-to-do neighborhoods just as in disadvantaged ones.

Lay people are becoming as versed on the causes of juvenile crime as counselors and social workers: At the root of the problem are broken homes, disengaged parents, a general lack of discipline and values.

Unfortunately, it probably has little impact on the young to say here that there is no myth in the idea that most hardened criminals probably cut their teeth on petty nuisance crimes. Lives are altered, sometimes irreparably, when adolescents or pre-adolescents get caught in a maelstrom of disobedience and when parents dismiss the antics as the harmless pranks of youth. Denial may yet be the largest obstacle to overcome if we are to set about reversing this situation.

Columbia leaders met recently to begin planning a public forum to address the problem. Proposed solutions already abound, from stricter penalties against perpetrators to creating venues that offer teen-agers more wholesome alternatives to fill idle time. The problem with the latter idea is that it has been bandied about unsuccessfully for years: No one wants such a facility in their neighborhood.

But youth batting cages or miniature golf courses or other such diversions are more calmatives than cures. The solution lies in tapping into something that will convince parents to take rightful responsibility for their children.

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