Justice delayed leaves time to die

August 18, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Earl Rodney Monroe Jr. was 14 when police first arrested him. In a little more than a year, officers nabbed the boy 10 more times, lodging felony charges that pointed to one conclusion: Lil' Earl was dealing drugs on the streets of his West Baltimore neighborhood.

After each arrest, he entered a juvenile system that's supposed to provide swift treatment and, if necessary, detention.

But every time Earl was arrested, juvenile justice workers and judges released him, only to see him return. The court didn't order any services until his fourth arrest. And with his 11th arrest, in April, the courts ordered him released after less than a month of detainment.

First, Earl was sent home with an electronic monitoring anklet and told not to leave his family's rowhouse. Then, on June 22, a judge ordered the anklet removed.

Four days later, Earl was shot in the head and killed.

When his family and friends gathered last month to bury him, five charges were pending against him.

In life, Earl Monroe was a problem for the juvenile justice system. In death, he is being held up as an extreme example of its inability to swiftly affect the lives of troubled children - testing the limits of its philosophy that detention is a last resort.

"There's a lack of immediate accountability," said Joyce L. Wright, the chief of the city state's attorney's office juvenile division. "Kids think the juvenile justice system is a joke because nothing happens."

Prosecutors and others complain that today's juvenile justice system was designed for teenagers being arrested after throwing rocks or getting into fights - not dealing drugs or carrying guns.

The state's juvenile system is far different from its adult equivalent, which punishes through jail and fines.

Instead, the century-old philosophy for juveniles stresses assistance for troubled youths, pursuing treatment and rehabilitation, with detention as the last resort. Children accused of committing crimes aren't actually found guilty; judges rule "facts sustained."

While a span of several months between arrest and sentencing might not be considered long and troubling in the adult court system, time moves differently for youths in need of swift feedback. Because most young alleged offenders are set free almost immediately after arrest, even short delays allow them to get arrested over and over again, slipping further toward lives of crime.

"They just don't have consequences quickly enough," said the city's health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson. "In all this legal stuff, what's being lost is that these kids are being released too quickly, kids are being shot, shooting others and dying."

Earl Monroe grew up and was killed in the 2600 block of Lauretta Ave. He lived in a 75-year-old rowhouse with his mother, stepfather, grandmother and some of his five siblings and half-siblings.

He was a sophomore at Walbrook High Uniform Service Academy, school officials said. His mother, Ursula Renee Isaac, confirmed what many officials suspected - although he dealt harder drugs such as cocaine, his use consisted of smoking marijuana.

City, state, police and judicial officials interviewed for this article said juvenile confidentiality laws prohibit them from discussing the specifics of Earl's case. But an account of the boy's court records - obtained by The Sun - shows that his first arrest was on robbery charges in February 2003, less than a month after his 14th birthday.

Officers took him to the juvenile justice center.

Triage of offenders

In Maryland, police make about 50,000 juvenile arrests each year, nearly a quarter in Baltimore. The worst offenders, such as those charged with murder, go straight to adult jail. Virtually everyone else goes to juvenile services.

That's where intake workers decide whether to refer cases to prosecutors or treat them informally - either immediately dropping the charges or making a deal to drop the charges if the accused aren't arrested again.

If cases are referred to prosecutors, juvenile services workers choose from three main options of what to do with the children until they appear in court: release them to parents; release them on community detention, often with electronic bracelets or the requirement to check in with the juvenile system's equivalent of parole workers; or detainment.

Some, often younger ones or those with troubled families, are assigned to an environment similar to foster care.

Sending children home with relatives typically delays the initial court appearance for at least 45 days, if not a few months; the other options require children to appear in court the next day.

Statewide, about 7 percent of all arrested children are detained until court, according to state officials. An additional 6 percent are ordered into community detention.

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