Officials grapple with juvenile crime

July 16, 1995|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Sun Staff Writer

There is a lawless element among the youth in Anne Arundel County. A taste for booze, drugs and other people's cars has caused the greatest surge in juvenile crime in recent memory, county police say.

The situation is serious enough that the Maryland state's attorney, Frank R. Weathersbee, last week created a team of prosecutors to address the problem of juvenile crime and figure out a way to control it.

"There was a time when the offenses juveniles committed were minor scuffs in school or with the law," Mr. Weathersbee said in announcing his Juvenile Trial Team. "Those days are gone."

While almost everyone agrees there's a problem, officials disagree on how to approach it. Law enforcement officials say tougher punishment is the cure, but the Anne Arundel public defender says the county needs to provide more recreation centers and job training. And educators caution against trying to nail down a specific reason that youngsters go astray.

"We do ourselves and kids a disservice when we look for a single answer," said Huntley J. Cross, a special assistant for student discipline with county schools.

He said family breakdown, a violent society, the entertainment youngsters watch and the sexual revolution all have contributed to the situation. Young people are confronted with so many violent images that "they're almost under attack," he said.

The problem is not confined to Anne Arundel County, said Stuart O. Simms, state secretary of juvenile services. Juvenile crime also increased in several other jurisdictions, he said, adding that whatever the cause, it can be curbed.

"It's important that we communicate with the public -- police, the judiciary and the community -- to get a perspective on what is occurring and how we can reduce it," he said.

In Anne Arundel County, that would mean reducing such statistics as these: Teen-age arrests for car theft jumped 2 1/2 times from 1993 to 1994, and drug arrests and alcohol offenses increased by 63 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

A drug bust this spring at Glen Burnie High School highlighted the drug and alcohol dilemma. Sgt. Bryan Heger's tactical narcotics team set up a surveillance camera and watched the students for one week, figuring the team would be breaking up a small-scale marijuana operation.

"We were surprised at what we found," Sergeant Heger said.

When they arrested two adults and four students April 28, they seized a portable bar in the car of one of the adult suspects.

"He had orange juice, vodka and peach schnapps in the car," said Sergeant Heger. Officers also seized LSD and speed.

Although county police have preventive measures -- the Youth Activities Program and the D.A.R.E (Drug Awareness, Resistance and Education) program -- Police Chief Robert A. Beck worries that the problem may get worse before it gets better.

The level of juvenile crime is increasing because the numbers of juveniles are increasing, he said. "These are the ones who have all the juice, and the hormones are all in turmoil," he said.

Worse, they are "bombarded" with negative messages from television and movies, the chief said, adding that the solution lies with their parents.

"We all, as parents, need to teach our kids values," Chief Beck said. "Police and the courts can't do it alone."

Mr. Weathersbee agreed that the increasing juvenile population, along with easily available guns and drugs, has contributed to the increase in juvenile crime.

"Not only are there more people, there are more kids," he said.

Alan R. Friedman, the county public defender, said the rise in juvenile crime "represents a tremendous alarm bell."

"If we're going to see this rise in juvenile crime, it's only a matter of time before we see it at the adult level," he said.

Mr. Friedman said the three-member team of prosecutors Mr. Weathersbee appointed last week won't be particularly effective.

"That doesn't address the problem," he said, arguing that more recreational facilities, drug abuse treatment centers and job training resources would help stem the increase. "Are you going to have more juvenile justice caseworkers?" he asked.

Meanwhile, Mr. Friedman's office will continue to assign only one public defender to juvenile court, he said, offering to "sit down with the state's attorney's office and address what to do about juvenile crime systemwide."

Mr. Weathersbee said Mr. Friedman criticized the juvenile prosecution team because he is a defense lawyer.

"If Alan thinks that it's bad, then it's got to be in the public interest," said Mr. Weathersbee, adding that he had no objection to meeting with the public defender to discuss juvenile crime.

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