U.S. looks at juvenile crime in Baltimore Violent teens may face federal prosecution

January 24, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Teen-agers accused of commiting violent crimes in Baltimore could find themselves before a federal judge facing long prison sentences with no chance of parole under a crackdown on juvenile offenders announced yesterday.

For the first time in Maryland, U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said, her office will consider prosecuting youths as young as 16, bringing the strict sanctions of federal law to some of the city's youngest suspects.

Using federal authorities to help combat juvenile crime is an indication, officials said at a news conference, that charging children as adults in state courts isn't enough to deter the most violent youthful offenders.

"It's revolutionary," Battaglia said. "For the first time ever, we are considering prosecuting children."

Under strict federal sentencing guidelines, there is little leeway for judges and there is no parole or probation afforded defendants. State law offers judges broad discretion and allows offenders to be paroled after serving part of their prison terms.

Battaglia's plan is one part of an expansive initiative to combine law enforcement and counseling to break a cycle of violence among city youths, who continue to account for a large portion of the city's shootings and slayings.

In an effort modeled after a successful Boston program that is credited with sending that city's juvenile crime rates plummeting, Baltimore police plan to target violent youth gangs, arresting members who flout the law and offering alternative programs to others.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said 23 officers in a new Youth Violence Strike Force have identified one youth gang and plan to make arrests soon, using that group as an example to persuade others to put down their weapons.

"If you are violent and you are adversely affecting the quality of life of residents, then you are on our radar screen," Frazier said. The task force will concentrate on offenders under age 24, who last year made up 57 percent of the shooting victims and 71 percent of the shooting suspects in the city.

Battaglia said youths chosen for federal prosecution will be carefully selected on the recommendation of the Baltimore Police Department. A federal judge has the final authority on prosecution.

A law that took effect in 1994 under President Clinton's crime bill allows youngsters 13 and older to be prosecuted under the federal system for a variety of crimes, most dealing with violence and gun possession.

Battaglia said Baltimore and Boston have the only two U.S. attorneys' offices -- out of 96 -- to consider prosecuting juveniles. U.S. attorneys in other cities are considering whether to use the expanded authority.

"We hope to send a message out to the youths who are making these deadly decisions," Battaglia said. Her office also will aggressively target adults who use juveniles to commit crimes, she said, adding, "Children are often the victims of drug distribution rings."

Police said some of the youths could be charged under Project Disarm, a federal program begun in 1995 that targets repeat offenders of gun and drug laws.

Some who have been found guilty have been sentenced to more than 25 years in prison, as opposed to the few years they would have served if convicted in state courts.

The far-reaching program announced yesterday includes a variety of counseling and outreach initiatives, but Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said officials are taking a "law enforcement perspective."

The mayor noted that the number of slayings in the city has

fallen below 200 only twice since 1971 and has been above 300 every year since 1990.

"It's almost as if we've gotten used to a certain amount of violence," Schmoke said. "We can't accept this if we are going to have a great city. We've got to change an entire culture."

Schmoke noted that there are opportunities for youngsters, such as after-school programs and the Police Athletic League, but he was angry about the legal requirement for the city to educate every person from age 6 to 16.

That means youngsters released from youth detention centers must be allowed to return to classrooms.

"I don't want any teacher or student to feel they must attend school with students with a propensity for violence," the mayor said. "Put these kids in federal prison and we won't have to worry about them coming back."

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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