Youth crime outgrows system to deal with it History of suspect in stolen-car crash illustrates problems

February 03, 1996|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The case of a 17-year-old Rosedale youth accused in last week's stolen car crash that maimed a well-known state employee illustrates a troubling problem in the juvenile justice system -- repeat offenders and escalating crimes, police and legal officials say.

Police said the young suspect had been arrested at least 10 times before on various charges, including several incidents of car theft, before turning a fateful corner in Northeast Baltimore on Jan. 27 in a stolen Honda.

The car slammed into a moving van and hit Adrienne Walker-Pittman, who was standing nearby. She lost part of her left leg, below the knee.

"First-timers are given a first-time break," said Detective Sgt. Robert J. Jagoe, a Baltimore County police supervisor in the joint city-county Regional Auto Theft Team. "Then second-timers get a second break, and third-timers a third break, and so on.

"Then soon, a kid commits an offense that is so disgraceful and so bad, we wallop them," he said.

"For too long, people have said that it's only property, and insurance can take care of it. But how can insurance put this woman's leg back on?"

Howard B. Merker, a deputy state's attorney for Baltimore County who handles juvenile cases, said, "When juvenile courts were originally established, there was no thought in the world that we would have the kind of crimes that we have now.

"The system is really geared toward dealing with young, first-time offenders rather than with the sophisticated minicriminals that we have now.

"Juvenile offenders are treated with kid gloves," Mr. Merker said. "It takes a lot to get a kid institutionalized. Our system is into rehabilitation, not punishment. I've been working juvenile cases since 1971, when I was in the city state's attorney's office, and we've made very little progress since then."

After the arrest Jan. 27, police disclosed that the youth had been arrested during the past two years on juvenile charges of drug possession, trespassing, breaking and entering and auto theft -- but because of the confidentiality of juvenile records, they were unable to say what punishment resulted.

Whether the youth will be prosecuted as an adult this time remains under study in the city state's attorney's office, which declined to comment.

Ms. Walker-Pittman, a spokeswoman for Baltimore-Washington-International Airport who made frequent appearances on television during last month's blizzard, is being treated at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Officials said her condition has been upgraded from critical to serious.

One of the problems for police and prosecutors, said Mr. Merker, is the lack of resources for treatment and institutionalization of a hard-core juvenile offender committing adultlike crimes.

For example, a 14-year-old whose first offense is car theft or something similar, is usually released into the custody of parents. If that same teen commits more offenses, Mr. Merker said, the system might suggest a treatment program.

In many cases, however, the youth probably never receives treatment for lack of money or resources, Mr. Merker said -- and the problem continues until there is a severe crime, and then a waiver of juvenile status is finally granted.

However, a defense lawyer likely will argue that the young client jTC never received treatment for psychological or social problems and therefore is not responsible for the criminal actions, Mr. Merker said.

How quickly juvenile cases are dealt with is also important in making a difference, said Judge David B. Mitchell, who handled juvenile cases for 11 years in Baltimore's Circuit Court.

Four months or more can pass from the time of arrest until a decision for treatment is made, Judge Mitchell said.

"During the interval, that kid may continue to commit crimes if someone doesn't intervene. What kind of message are kids getting? 'I can get away with this.' Much quicker intervention is needed.

"There are no easy answers," Judge Mitchell said. "Money and funds are going into the deep end of the system and not focusing on the front end. We try to fix a problem after it has already erupted."

But one thing is for sure, he said: "You cannot lock them all up."

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