Youth arrests decline again

Number accused of violent crimes dropped 16% in '98

State officials encouraged

September 23, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Arrests of juveniles for violent crimes declined last year in Maryland for the second year in a row, a trend that state officials attribute to stronger enforcement and prevention efforts.

On the eve of a statewide juvenile justice summit convening today in Hunt Valley, officials announced yesterday that the number of youths arrested for violent crimes declined by 16 percent in 1998, including a 26 percent drop in arrests for robbery.

The number of juveniles arrested in Maryland, however, remains higher than in the early 1990s. But the Glendening administration still called the recent decline as a success.

"This is very encouraging news," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who oversees the Glendening administration's efforts to combat juvenile crime. "We're not declaring victory, but we have combined tougher enforcement with stronger prevention, and we're getting results."

Critics note that juvenile crime has declined nationally since the early 1990s, suggesting the decrease in Maryland may have less to do with any particular state effort than with broad social or economic trends. They also contend the state focuses too much on locking children up instead of trying to counsel them at home or in their communities.

"We do celebrate the reduction in crime," said Heather Ford, director of Maryland's Juvenile Justice Coalition, a collection of youth advocacy groups. "Everyone would like to take credit for it, and everyone does take credit for it. But it isn't specific to anything [done] in Maryland."

But Townsend dismissed such criticism, arguing that the state's population changes too slowly from year to year to explain a double-digit drop in robbery arrests. "The drop in juvenile crime in Maryland is a direct result of what we've done to put more teeth into the system and hold offenders accountable," she said.

The number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- declined from 3,736 in 1997 to 3,136 in 1998, according to crime reports compiled by the Maryland State Police. The number arrested for serious property crimes declined by 10 percent, to 13,238.

State police reported fewer juvenile arrests in three of the four categories of violent crime -- murder, robbery and aggravated assaults. The number of rape arrests increased 14 percent to 112 from 98, but remained lower than they have been in more than 25 years. Murder arrests are at their lowest since 1991.

But for most other categories of crimes, such as larceny-theft and drug abuse violations, the number of juveniles arrested remained higher than they had been in the early 1990s, despite the recent declines.

The number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes fell in 1997 for the first time since 1989.

Townsend noted that the Glendening administration and the General Assembly have increased the budget of the Department of Juvenile Justice by $24 million. The extra money has enabled the agency to expand detention space and deploy probation officers in schools, among other things.

Youth advocates acknowledge the state is spending more on juvenile justice, but they contend that it is only beginning to make up for budget cuts in the early 1990s. And they argue that the Glendening administration's priorities are misplaced.

"Although juvenile crime is going down in this state and country," said the Juvenile Justice Coalition's Ford, "juvenile detention has doubled over the last five years."

Ford said state juvenile probation officers are overworked, and there are not enough programs to provide after-school or community-based intervention for youth offenders.

There are 11 categories of crime in Maryland in which youths as young as 14 years old may be charged and tried as adults, and advocates contend too many children are being traumatized or hardened by such laws.

"Youths who are in jails or prisons are twice as likely to be assaulted," Ford said, "five times as likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times as likely to commit suicide as those who are in the juvenile justice system."

The lieutenant governor countered that state officials have increased budgets for such prevention programs as after-school counseling -- as well as for detention. She said the administration currently is studying the effects of trying juveniles as adults.

"For too long, nothing happened when a child was picked up," she said. "They received a signal from the juvenile justice system that it didn't matter. We're taking it seriously. We've made more changes in our juvenile justice system in the last four years than had been made in the last 40 years."

Juvenile crime was an issue during the gubernatorial election last year, as the Republican challengers to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his running mate argued that the juvenile court system was in chaos. Glendening and Townsend handily defeated the GOP ticket of Ellen Sauerbrey and Richard Bennett.

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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