The criminals among us keep getting younger

October 21, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Baltimore County is trying not to be frightened of its children. Sometimes it's not so easy. The arrest numbers arrive each morning on the desk of Police Chief Terrence Sheridan, and he talks on the telephone with County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger almost daily, and the two men shake their heads unhappily.

"The biggest problem this county has," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "We're making so many arrests, we can't keep up on the processing side."

"It's our big concern," said Sheridan. "Ten years ago, we had maybe two-thirds of what we have today."

Consider a few numbers:

Of 37,000 arrests last year in Baltimore County, 27 percent were juveniles.

Of all arrests for violent crimes - homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault - 31 percent were juveniles.

Of all juvenile arrests, 20 percent were 15-year-olds, male and female.

Sixteen percent were 14-year-olds.

Eleven percent were 13-year-olds.

Seven percent were 12-year-olds.

Nine percent were children 11 and younger.

At the Timonium Holiday Inn this morning, law enforcement officials are holding their seventh annual East Coast conference on such troubles, and both Ruppersberger and Sheridan say they're hearing voices in other communities that sound like echoes of their own.

"What we're talking about," says Ruppersberger, "is getting to these children before they get to the next level." He mentions new Police Athletic League efforts. He mentions Community Action Teams patrolling main thoroughfares. He mentions the county's JOIN program, Juvenile Offenders In Need of Supervision.

"As soon as the kid's arrested," he says, "we get the police to go to the kid's house, and meet with his parents. Bring 'em all to the table."

"Right," says Sheridan. "We get everybody involved within five days, the kids, the parents, the schools. Everything to show these kids this kind of behavior is unacceptable. If you don't show the consequences close to the act itself, the child loses sense of what it's all about. Sixty days, it's too long. If the kid sees the police meeting with his parents right away, there's no doubt what this is all about."

But there are wrinkles to county crime that makes it a little tougher to make such connections: crossing jurisdictional lines.

"We had a situation off York Road," Sheridan says, "just past the county line. A rash of bicycle robberies, and we found it was city kids who'd been doing it. I asked my commander, 'How do they get there?' He said, 'They take the bus, they get off, they grab the bikes to ride back.'"

Sheridan's thus touched on a specific problem: the county crimes being committed by kids who are coming out from the city. Last year, about 15 percent of violent county juvenile crimes were committed by city kids, and 36 percent of all juvenile property crimes. Sheridan mentions the buses around York Road, but there are other police who sardonically refer to the light rail system as "rob 'n' ride."

"That's not a very nice term," Sheridan says, "and I wish they wouldn't use that. For one thing, it isn't true. There was an increase in theft and shoplifting when light rail first opened, but we've developed intense patrolling since then, and the numbers are down."

"It's a perception issue," Ruppersberger says. "When we cut the light rail ribbon at Hunt Valley, somebody said, 'Yeah, it's bringing all this crime out here, they stole my car.' I said, 'When?' The guy said, 'Two months ago.' I said, 'Wait a minute, the light rail wasn't even here yet.'"

But light rail's only part of the problem, perception or otherwise.

Last year, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., in a speech entitled "Maryland Vs. Crime: Battle Plan for the New Year and New Century," cited recent figures on juvenile crime around the country. Though Maryland ranks 19th in population, he said, it was fourth in overall violent crime among juveniles, third in juvenile homicides, seventh in juvenile rapes, fifth in juvenile robberies.

"Some of this," says Ruppersberger, "is very basic. You have kids with teen-age mothers, and no fathers, and it becomes a question of role models. Go into some of these neighborhoods and see these 13-year-old girls who are pregnant. They don't understand nutrition. They need to be educated, and they need to be trained for jobs. And their kids are growing up, and hanging on the corners, and we've got to deal with these problems every day."

When Ruppersberger took office, he said, the county was analyzing its crime statistics every three months. Now, he said, they're analyzing trends on a daily basis.

"If we don't, we know which way it's going," he said.

Pub Date: 10/21/97

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