Report criticizes priorities of juvenile justice system Group says crackdown fails to attack roots

July 31, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

An advocacy group has issued a report charging that state government has its priorities backward when it comes to juvenile justice, with far too few resources to prevent youth crime before it becomes serious.

The report, released yesterday by Advocates for Children and Youth, also states that more Maryland youngsters are being charged as adults, but that many of them are not the repeat offenders politicians envisioned when they passed legislation in 1994 to crack down on young criminals.

To avert a projected increase in juvenile crime statewide and around the country, officials must shift resources extensively to intervene in children's lives before they are in serious trouble, the report says. Intensively targeting small groups of repeat offenders, wrote policy analyst Heather A. Ford, would make a large difference -- national studies show that about 15 percent of juvenile offenders are responsible for 50 percent to 75 percent of all serious and violent juvenile crime.

"There is little effort made to keep youth from becoming chronic offenders," the report states.

One such program began yesterday in the Palmer Park community, near Landover in Prince George's County, as civic leaders, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and other state and federal officials launched Operation Spotlight to monitor a group of youths considered to be highly likely to get into trouble again. If successful, the program may be expanded around the state.

Susan P. Leviton, founder of Advocates for Children and Youth VTC and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the project is a good start but is not nearly enough. Most of Maryland's money for juvenile justice is spent on locking youngsters up, she said.

Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, said the department has been increasing its attention to early intervention, beefing up other small programs in certain neighborhoods.

But he said he could not increase the offerings substantially without more money because a certain number of youths involved in the department's 55,000 cases must be locked up in expensive institutions.

"The question [of shifting priorities] is, at what risk to youths we're providing services to, as well as risk to public safety?" Simms said.

The report also charges that new get-tough policies at local schools, such as a "zero tolerance" policy in which some Baltimore County principals call police at any sign of violence, contributes to the problem, increasing referrals to department. In minor cases, the department is ill-equipped to do anything other than reprimand the youth and send him home, the report states.

As a result, "The behavior is often ignored until it results in a serious incident which requires court intervention and punitive sanctions," Ford wrote. "Rather than waste resources processing paperwork, a better use of that money would be for [the juvenile justice department] and the schools to collaborate and implement school-based programming for troubling behavior."

Baltimore County schools spokesman Donald Mohler said the school system wasn't passing on its problems to the state agency.

"We provide a multitude of services for children," he said.

The report also examines the increasing practice of charging youths under age 18 as adults, in large part because a 1994 law allows 16-year-olds to be charged as adults for crimes involving violence or firearms.

The law was supposed to send a message to juveniles that they could not cycle through the system, repeating serious crimes while escaping harsh punishment because of their age.

But the report says 54 percent of the 449 youths sentenced as adults in Maryland in 1994 and 1995 did not have prior juvenile criminal records and that 84 percent did not have adult records.

Some observers have criticized the practice as too lenient because juveniles sentenced in adult court often receive probation, with much less supervision than they might get in a program geared to offenders their age.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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