Youth crime is target of crackdown Focus on juveniles prompted by rise in violence, gangs

'We don't want to wait'

Prosecutors promise more felony charges, education campaign

March 10, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Troubled by a rise in violent juvenile crime -- and concerned about a forming gang problem -- Howard County law enforcement officials are redoubling their efforts to crack down on youthful offenders.

Two weeks from now, the Howard County Police Department is set to unveil an anti-gang initiative aimed at what Police Chief James N. Robey calls the "copycat gangs and developing gangs" implicated in robberies and other crimes in the county.

"We don't want to wait until it becomes a problem like in the inner cities," said Chief Robey.

The rise of youth gangs in the county contrasts markedly with Howard's image as a well-off, middle-class community relatively insulated from the street violence more commonly associated with urban areas.

And Howard prosecutors now are trying to send a strong message to its young people, said State's Attorney Marna McLendon: "The courthouse is no joke."

Juveniles, she said, are no longer getting "a slap on the wrist."

For example, county prosecutors say they're likely to file felony charges against youths in cases such as car theft that previously might have drawn a lesser charge, such as unauthorized use of a car.

The get-tough approach comes in response to what law enforcement officials say is a disturbing increase in violent juvenile offenses, illustrated by the 1995 crime statistics released by the police two weeks ago.

Last year, the number of robberies committed by youths rose to 25 from 19 in 1994, and the number of aggravated assaults increased to 79 from 53 in 1994.

In some cases, such crimes have been traced to a small but growing number of youth gangs scattered throughout the county, including Columbia, Elkridge and Ellicott City. About six have been identified so far -- with such names as "Long Reach Crew," "Six-Pack Crew" and even a girl's gang, "Nine Lives."

At least one recent robbery has been traced directly to gang activity, said Chief Robey -- a January incident that led to the arrest of five Howard High students.

"They were a gang of youngsters who robbed students of money, jackets and any other items they wanted," the chief said.

To check the gangs before they grow or spread, Chief Robey has assigned Sgt. Kevin Burnett to coordinate "the gang intelligence" and develop anti-gang initiatives.

Prosecutor McLendon said that the county must be aggressive with the first sign of gangs. "It's a problem we can deal with if we turn it around now," she said.

But gangs are just a part of the problem posed by juvenile offenders, county officials say.

Drew Watt, county supervisor for the Department of Juvenile Services, said his office received 1,939 cases of all kinds last year, up from 1,717 in 1994. To put a dent in juvenile crimes, he helped to lead 183 youngsters on a tour of the county jail last year and 156 to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Many of the cases Mr. Watt's office receives wind up on the desk of William Vincent Tucker, the county's only juvenile prosecutor. He handled between 650 and 675 cases last year.

"I'm seeing a rise in the number of violent crimes -- assaults and battery," said Mr. Tucker, 34. "They are no longer one-on-one [fights]."

Increasingly, law enforcement officials are trying to reach out to county youths -- before they commit crimes.

After Ms. McLendon took office in late 1994, for example, she formed a "juvenile strategy" group, which found that youngsters were getting more violent and using drugs at an earlier age.

So prosecutors went to sixth-grade classes to dispel myths about the courthouse, including one that juvenile records disappear when the young people turn 18.

"Kids thought the system was a joke," Ms. McLendon said. "We had to change that."

In a pamphlet -- "Hey kids, the party's over" -- prosecutors outlined how students and their parents could be forced to pay up to $10,000 for restitution in connection with crimes and how youths could be ordered to a detention facility or house arrest.

Prosecutors also are meeting with parents and educators to develop new anti-crime strategies. This complements the prosecutors' new "community justice" program, in which they work directly with residents to identify problems particular to their communities, especially problems involving drugs and young people.

The Police Department also has a program called "Diversion" that lets first-time nonviolent juvenile offenders avoid a criminal record by agreeing to counseling and community service. In 1993, 242 young people took part in that program, performing 1,378 hours of community service.

Chief Robey said the Diversion program is a success, saying there is a low recidivism rate among participants.

Experts and law enforcement officials offer several theories about why youth are committing more violent crimes.

"The lack of adult supervision," speculated Dr. Fernando Soriano, a psychologist and professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Missouri, who in 1991 served on a commission on violence and youth sponsored by the American Psychological Association. "They have too much time on their hands."

Exposure to violence in the media, lack of positive role models and use of drugs are other factors, he said.

Because Howard is so affluent, Ms. McLendon said, parents often believe these factors aren't at work here.

"There's a feeling there is a little utopia," she said. "Parents don't understand the full extent of the problem. There is a good bit of denial."

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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