Fatal consequences

August 20, 2004

KIDS THINK the juvenile justice system is a joke because nothing happens." So says the chief of the Baltimore state's attorney's office juvenile division, and she's not alone. Unfortunately, it's a joke that can be deadly.

All 13 of the juveniles in Baltimore age 11 and older who were victims of homicide through July had juvenile records, many with more than a couple of arrests. At least three juveniles accused of being killers in the past year had lengthy records, one with charges in at least 10 separate incidents.

When 15-year-old Earl Rodney Monroe Jr. was shot dead in June, he had been arrested 11 times in just 15 months, The Sun's Ryan Davis reported Wednesday. Before he appeared in court on his first charge, he had been arrested three more times, each a drug charge. So for him, there were no consequences to behaving badly until he had been caught four times.

That's not good parenting, be it by the state or by parents. Waiting a month or two to tell a kid he was wrong that Saturday night, then waiting another month to say he is grounded, doesn't work. Children aren't like adults. They need proper feedback immediately, or they'll draw their own conclusions about what leads to more success -- doing chores, bullying money out of smaller kids or dealing drugs.

Two months after his first arrest, the consequence for Earl was a short detention, then house arrest using an ankle bracelet. A month after that, the consequence was probation, anklet off. It didn't turn him from his destructive path, and Earl continued to build his juvenile arrest record.

In April, after his 11th arrest, he finally was enrolled in drug court, an intensive program requiring him to go to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center each weekday, among other things. Not two months later, though, he was dead.

Time after time, Earl had been processed in a system using the latest risk-assessment tools, and told he was free to go, even when he had broken his probation by being arrested again. Time after time, when judges had to choose between locking him up or letting him go, they chose to let him go.

Those were pretty much the only choices. Drug court can handle only a few dozen of the hundreds arrested each year (there were 3,397 juvenile drug arrests in the city in 2003). The much-anticipated after-school "reporting" center, where juveniles would check in with counselors and tutors, has yet to open. There has been little concrete planning for other alternatives.

There should be. These kids should be getting the rehabilitation they need after the first arrest. Fewer then would find themselves arrested again. And more might live.

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