Safety first

July 06, 2004

TWO YEARS AGO, in three separate incidents, juveniles cut their electronic-monitor anklets, roamed Baltimore's streets for days or months, then allegedly killed fellow citizens.

This was followed by much handwringing and many promises from authorities to improve. And changes were made: the Department of Juvenile Services, police and sheriffs teamed up to more swiftly get warrants and writs and seek out youths AWOL from home detention. A trio on the city police warrant task force is devoted solely to catching those 100 to 180 juveniles who are on the fly at any given time.

Still, these needed changes did not prevent the repeat at least twice last year of the same deadly pattern: Eric Brown, then 14 years old, had already been arrested at least nine times on juvenile charges, including robbery and assault. He had run away from DJS programs, and in 2000, had cut off an ankle monitor. He ran again, from a group home, in late 2002. A warrant seeking his arrest was issued in April 2003. The next day, police say, he shot a 24-year-old stranger.

Fifteen-year-old Brian A. Wilson, arrested at least six times before and found delinquent in one case, and sought on a writ for failing to appear for a hearing on other charges, slipped his ankle monitor in October. A warrant seeking him was issued the next week. He is accused in the Nov. 26 shooting death of a woman at a bus stop.

Why is this still happening? How many arrests or charges are too many, how many failures to appear does it take, before a juvenile is considered a flight risk - or a danger? The problem is with the gatekeepers: DJS workers and judges, who can make the decision to hold them rather than send them home with an ankle bracelet. And they need a better system for determining which ones are not the right kids for home detention.

These are not: the Wilsons and Browns, who already have long juvenile records, failures to appear, escapes from justice. Assigned to community monitoring, with a probation officer and perhaps an ankle monitor, they're not getting the counseling, close observation and respite from street life they need to improve their lot.

Some judges have said they feel stymied because the detention centers are full, inappropriate placements or dangerous - but that calls for another supervision option for these kids, not release. And there are ways to free up detention center beds for these youths. One is to provide more group homes or shelters for lower-risk detainees.

DJS and court workers need to better identify kids who are flight and safety risks at the start. Repeated arrests, escalating violence and certain family characteristics could signal a kid is on the slide, according to groups such as the interagency child death review team. They need to translate their knowledge into concrete advice for intake workers, prosecutors and judges so they can make the wisest possible decisions.

And agencies must share information. For example, warrant offices need some access to a youth's DJS file to more speedily know where to find him. Police and intake workers and court workers need complete, up-to-date records from juvenile and adult courts - so they don't mistakenly release someone who should be detained, as has happened. Maryland's juvenile justice goal is to place kids in the least-restrictive environment that is healing as well as safe - and that is a laudable aim. But for some kids in continuing trouble, detention with services is the best option - and one the state should exercise.

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