Sometimes you have to play connect-the-dots across the landscape of various front page newspaper stories for a glance at the American psyche. In one story, we learn of alarming increases in the number of children living in poverty. In another, we find that Congress wishes to get tough on juvenile crime.
Thus, society establishes a pattern that indicts everyone: First it makes life miserable for those in their time of great vulnerability, and then it punishes them for reacting with childish and destructive behavior to their crummy existence.
Take Anne Arundel County. From 1990 to 1994, says the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of school-age children living below the poverty line rose 87 percent and now takes in 8.8 percent of all Anne Arundel children.
In Howard County, the most prosperous geography in the Baltimore metro area, child poverty jumped 47 percent in the same period.
While this was going on, these Howard County crime figures could be seen over the past four years: In 1993, there were 1,137 juvenile arrests; in 1994, 1,657; in 1995, 2,006; last year, 2,319. And major juvenile crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) jumped from 618 in '95 to 741 a year ago.
Then there was Debbie Tall of Anne Arundel County police. She is program director of the Juvenile/Victim Assistance Unit, and yesterday she was looking over the crime figures among young people: more thefts, more assault and battery, more property destruction, more drugs.
"If you go by the number of victims of juvenile crime," she said, "it's up 44 percent over a year ago. And what we're seeing is a decrease in age. It used to be, most of the juvenile crime was zTC kids 15 to 17. Now we're seeing a lot of kids starting around age 12.
"Kids today try to be older faster, but they don't know how to do it. A lot of them come from homes with one parent. In a lot of cases, yes, this will translate to poverty. Sometimes they just want a stick of gum, and sometimes they're stealing clothing out of a department store. In fact, sometimes they've got adults waiting outside the store for them, who are in on the stealing."
She was looking at the juvenile crime figures 48 hours after a Washington Post story that led Saturday's front page, headlined: "Child Poverty Surges in Area." It detailed an 85 percent jump in childhood poverty across all of the D.C.-area suburbs, including Anne Arundel and Howard, and noted that poverty rose 28 percent among school-age children across the nation. The previous day, in the lead front-page story in this newspaper, we had evidence of few people on Capitol Hill actually looking beyond the halls of Congress to the breakdown now occurring in actual American communities.
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to get tough on juvenile lawbreakers. By a vote of 286 to 132, it passed a bill that would provide grants to states that stiffen penalties for juveniles who commit violent crimes or serious drug offenses.
The money would help build more juvenile detention centers. It would pay for more prosecutors and other crime-fighting measures.
In other words, let's do what we've been doing with staggering amounts of money and a staggering lack of success: Let's lock people behind bars, and never mind what made them so crazy in the first place.
In America, no one has to be a social worker to see the troubles caused by juvenile crime. Baltimore County police have seen a depressing surge in it. In the city, on any morning of the week, the kids are gathered at Clarence Mitchell Courthouse in a room overflowing into a nearby hall. Plenty of these kids are still in elementary school.
These are not the children of the affluent. Most are not the children of the middle class. They're products of miserable poverty, who are bright enough to understand a simple fact: They've already been cut out of the game.
Many of their fathers have fled, and their mothers struggle to keep things together. Their schools are often second-rate, and their neighborhoods are a mess. They turn on the television and see professional athletes hustling sneakers at unconscionable prices, and know they'll never have money to get such things legitimately.
And much of this fuels not only despair, but anger. They want their cut of the American dream, which people all around them, on television, in the movies, in nearby neighborhoods, seem to have.
Some of these kids are frankly dangerous, and therefore we not only fear them, but despise them as well, and want them out of our way. That's what this talk in Congress is all about. And the clear connection between poverty and anti-social behavior continues to be an afterthought, and we think we can stumble our way to a sense of security with something as puny as iron bars. Pub Date: 5/13/97