Slaps on wrist hurt juveniles, their victims

August 21, 2004|By Gregory Kane

Here lies Earl Rodney Monroe Jr., rehabilitated to death by the Baltimore juvenile "justice" system.

IF THERE is anything like truth in headstones, that's what Monroe's should say. The 15-year-old West Baltimore youth was fatally shot in early June, but not before running up an arrest record for drug dealing that saw police nab him 11 times before "street justice" - that term every bit as oxymoronic as "juvenile justice" - caught up with him. Sun reporter Ryan Davis did an extensive story on Monroe in Wednesday's edition of the paper. Several people - prosecutors, police and other officials - said there may be a problem with a juvenile justice system that doesn't punish swiftly enough.

Duh, you think?

For years, as Davis' story pointed out, the focus on juvenile offenders has been rehabilitating them. Of late, rehabilitation has become virtually synonymous with wrist-slapping. What else can we conclude when Monroe was arrested 11 times and officials still didn't even consider sending him to - horror of horrors - the Hickey School or Cheltenham?

No, the feeling must have been that young Monroe, on about, oh, his 20th or 25th juvenile arrest, might then qualify for some detention time. It took Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark - his broad shoulders no doubt sagging from his own personal and departmental troubles - to offer a voice of sanity in this torrent of madness. Had Monroe been at Hickey or Cheltenham, Clark indicated in Davis' story, the boy might still be alive.

But it's his death that has finally triggered at least a skosh of skepticism about whether the much-cherished wrist-slap method of handling juvenile offenders is the best one. As is the case with juvenile crime, it's all about the offenders. It's never about the victims. There was no angst at all in January, when 52-year-old Joseph A. Harvey Jr. was stabbed to death across from the Pimlico Race Course.

You've never heard of Harvey? There's no reason you should have. He was on his way home when at least three youths grabbed, beat and stabbed him. Three boys, two 15 and one 14 at the time, have been charged as adults. A spokesman for the city state's attorney's office said the three are scheduled to be in court Oct. 18. You can pretty much guess why, can't you? To have their cases shipped back down to the wrist-slapping, juvenile court level, of course.

You've probably never heard of Quwanda Thornton either, but in her own way she was rehabilitated to death by Baltimore's juvenile justice system. Thornton, 20, was standing on a bus stop the day before Thanksgiving last year when two young punks, twin brothers, tried to get fresh with her. One fatally shot her in the chest when she rebuffed them. The twins, 16-year-old Brian Antonio Wilson and Paul Anthony Wilson, pleaded guilty to the crime earlier this month. Brian Wilson, the shooter, and his brother had been arrested at least four times in a 34-month period for burglary and drug charges.

Officials couldn't bring themselves to get the Wilsons off the street any more than they could Monroe. Both twins were on probation when Brian Wilson shot Thornton. If there were any questions about the effectiveness of the current approach in dealing with juvenile offenders, you would think they would have been raised in Thornton's case, wouldn't you?

Nope. This isn't about Thornton. Nor is it about Harvey, although we don't know the extent of the juvenile records of his alleged murderers. There are those confidentiality laws, you know, that forbid divulging them, to protect the identities of offenders who might follow the straight and narrow later.

There's nothing more those laws can do to protect Monroe, but the system clings to them anyway. In Davis' story, we learned that "[c]ity, state, police and judicial officials interviewed for this article said juvenile confidentiality laws prohibit them from discussing the specifics of Earl's case."

When a kid has been arrested 11 times in a little more than a year, it might indicate he's on his way to becoming a career thug and not a model citizen. A more sensible law would lift the confidentiality requirement after such a high number of offenses. There comes a point when it's stupid to protect a kid clearly not interested in such protection. And protecting him after he's dead is being stupid for no reason.

Incarceration at an early stage might offer better protection, but don't expect a move in that direction any time soon. Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch was quoted in Davis' story as saying we can't jail our way out of the juvenile crime problem.

But we sure as heck can't wrist-slap our way out of it either.

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