Deadly sieve

September 23, 2004

CHRONIC OFFENDERS are slipping through the chasms in Baltimore's juvenile justice system, boosting crime statistics and endangering the community as well as themselves. The blame is shared, and so must the solution be.

Some of the most egregious juvenile offenders cycle quickly through the system, in some cases racking up another arrest and more charges just days after they were arraigned on an earlier charge, according to a report released this week by the city's Police Department. Of the 4,124 juvenile arrests in the first six months of this year, 2,044 -- almost half -- were charged to the same 830 youths, just 28 percent of the total number of kids arrested.

Twenty-seven of the 830 were arrested five or more times just in that half-year; 13 of them have been arrested 10 or more times in their short lives. One 15-year-old has been arrested 19 times, starting with theft and malicious destruction and ending (as of the report) with first-degree assault. Another eight juveniles this year face such serious charges that they are in adult court -- and adult jail -- but they weren't part of the study.

Why can't the system hang onto these kids? The problems are both inside the agencies and between them.

The scale that Department of Juvenile Services workers use to decide who should stay in custody has flaws. For example, it doesn't distinguish between a youth who is in on his second arrest and one in on his 19th; common sense would suggest the second kid is a better candidate for custody.

Juveniles often wait months -- in the community -- before their hearings, likely not making the connection between their actions and any consequences the courts may dole out. The courts, state's attorneys and public defenders have been shaving the long waits, but they still have a way to go.

Even at the hearings, more than half the cases are dismissed, many because of no-shows by arresting officers, say those involved.

For the relatively few chronic offenders, timely detention combined with treatment, education and other attention should be the rule. But for most juveniles, even those in the city's jail, detention is the wrong choice. Kids whose history and charges don't warrant detention but whose guardians don't come to pick them up right away should be going to shelter care or elsewhere. Others who aren't such a severe safety or flight risk should be diverted to alternative programs, including substance-abuse treatment. Unfortunately, these alternatives seem to be always on the drawing board but never on the ground at cash-strapped DJS.

For the chronic offenders, administrative inaction can lead to death -- theirs or someone else's. All 13 of the juveniles in Baltimore 11 and older who were killed in the first half of the year 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.

The courts, DJS and the Police Department cooperated to share the confidential data on which this report is based; it is the first such report in memory. That kind of cooperation must continue to solve this problem -- and catch early and save as many of these kids as possible.

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