Curran's proposal to attack crime at its beginnings

This Just In...

March 13, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

It won't be as widely read as "Primary Colors," and hasn't received a fraction of the attention. But Attorney General Joe Curran's 70-page report on crime, issued in January, is a far more important read especially if you're interested in spending, oh, the rest of your life in the state of Maryland.

Curran calls for some radical changes in how we attack crime, and he beats the drums for a takes-a-whole-village approach to stopping the flood of kids getting into it each year. I know something called "Battle Plan for a New Year and a New Century" probably sounds like a bureaucratic tome, prime for the recycling bin. But it actually has more guts than what usually comes out of state agencies, beginning with Curran's candid assertion that, when it comes to stemming crime, "We're going nowhere."

Violent crime is down a few percentage points across the country. But not in Maryland. Last year, the homicide rate went up, as did the number of robberies and rapes.

And in Maryland, we spend plenty of money on crime in both law enforcement and corrections. In fact, we allocate a greater percentage of the state's wealth to criminal justice than almost any other state. Yet, we're still in the Top 10 of per capita crime. We have a good supply of criminals, too and more in the pipeline.

Criminals start young in Maryland, and that's what causes the drag on the crime stats, according to Curran. Let me lay out the numbers, culled from the attorney general's heavily footnoted report.

Maryland's juvenile crime rates are among the highest in the country. Our kids rank third in homicides, fifth in robberies, and seventh in rapes and aggravated assaults.

Between 1984 and 1991, juvenile homicides were up 127 percent, compared with a 20 percent increase in adult homicides. Juveniles commit one-quarter of the murders in Baltimore.

Half of juvenile inmates were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their offense.

Maryland's juvenile justice system was set up for truants and bullies; it can't handle killers and drug dealers. The system is stretched to the limit and out of date. In 1994, almost 45,000 new cases were filed or reopened in juvenile courts a 30 percent jump in just four years.

"Our system simply has nowhere near the amount of resources needed to deal with the ballooning volume of both delinquency and serious juvenile crime," Curran says. "If we do not change this landscape, Maryland's prospects for reducing its crime rates over the long term are dim."

From where do the bad kids come?

More than 38 percent of children in Maryland either live in poverty or something close to it.

In recent years, 28 percent of all Maryland children lived in single-parent households, and nearly half of those households were mired in poverty.

Maryland ranks 13th nationwide in the number of kids dropping out of school between the ages of 16 and 19.

Three of four kids exposed to family violence end up being violent themselves.

All this adds up to a long line of kids marching into the ranks of criminals. And once they step unfettered into that culture, most kids become mired in it they've essentially died a social death at an early age.

"We must stop people before they end up before a judge to be sentenced for committing a crime," Curran says. "We must stop them before they fall prey to the influences which cause criminal behavior. Because once any of these things has occurred, it is fundamentally too late. A few can still be saved, certain government efforts might still make a difference around the edges, but the better part of the battle is already lost."

Bleak stuff. And yet Curran thinks there's hope.

For starters, it's possible to identify the kids with the greatest risk of committing violent crimes or selling drugs. They're the chronic offenders; they constitute 5 percent of all juveniles, yet they commit half of all juvenile offenses and three-quarters of juvenile violence.

We know where to find these kids. We know the neighborhoods they're likely to come from (the poorest and most crime-ridden), the family problems they're likely to encounter (single-parent households, child abuse), and the problems they're likely to have in school (anti-social behavior, academic failure).

Get to them early, Curran says, and we might be able to keep these kids from becoming stuck in the criminal culture.

TC That's where this "village" approach comes in, though Curran doesn't call it that. He talks about "community prevention boards" that would go after kids with early really early prevention efforts. Supervise their development, visit their homes, monitor their progress in school, provide family therapy, go for it a comprehensive intervention into the lives of kids at the greatest risk of joining the march into crime.

This is the tough part getting to kids before the drug dealers do. If we don't, we simply face more of the same in the future. Here's one more statistic from Joe Curran's report: Nine of 10 boys incarcerated in juvenile institutions end up being arrested as adults 80 percent of them for a major felony.

More on Curran's report in future columns.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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