Dealing young

April 10, 2005

AN 11-YEAR-OLD suspected heroin dealer was arrested in East Baltimore last week with the drugs and $189 in cash on him. The arrest occurred on Lt. Timothy Devine's shift, and in 20 years on the job, the police veteran said, he had never seen a drug dealer so young. Lieutenant Devine may be the exception -- because the 11-year-old drug dealer is not. In the past decade, city police have arrested 32 11-year-olds and nine 10-year-olds on felony drug charges.

These are not runners and lookouts, the youngest recruits in Baltimore's drug trade. They've graduated.

They belong to a class of street dealer who is pitching serious stuff -- mostly cocaine, then heroin and marijuana. They're children operating in a dangerous trade, some of whom aren't even 4 feet tall and whom weigh as little as 60 pounds. They're kids with the nicknames of childhood -- Little Bear, Weezy and Baby -- and others known by more ominous monikers: Dirty Mike, Little Rock, Messy Marvin. All but four are boys. Only two are white. Eight of these kids had been arrested at least twice, some within days of their first arrest.

What this class of 41 tells us is that, despite Lieutenant Devine's experience, an 11-year-old drug dealer is not an anomaly in Baltimore, not in this city with 50,000 addicts, where deaths by drug overdose far and away eclipsed the staggering homicide rate.

This class of boys and girls also is not a reason to indict a generation of Baltimore children growing up in some desperately poor, violent neighborhoods whose mothers may be addicted to drugs and fathers imprisoned because of them.

But the presence of 10- and 11-year-olds in our criminal justice system for serious drug offenses should concern parents, families, schools, churches and the range of public agencies and private institutions engaged in the work of raising and protecting children. Because these are kids who, despite their street smarts, are victims of the men and women who organize and run Baltimore's narcotics operations, and of the insidious trade that can ensnare entire families.

When kids that young are arrested, they are channeled into the state's overwhelmed juvenile justice system. Sadly, more often than not, their first experience with the system isn't their last. On one day last month, according to police reports, there were 531 Baltimore kids age 15 or under with at least three felony drug arrests in the system.

In his work with 140 city youths who are most at risk to kill or be killed, city health chief Dr. Peter L. Beilenson says drug involvement is a common thread; teens in his program are selling drugs, and often a parent is using drugs. In some families, drug dependency is a cultural inheritance. Intensive intervention and supervision in the lives of these kids have reduced their arrests, kept them home at night and employed them in summer jobs.

The success of Operation Safe Kids has shown Dr. Beilenson the need to intervene in the lives of even younger kids, those ages 10 to 13, who are loitering, skipping school and getting into fights. But this city program touches a fraction of the kids at risk for becoming the next era of teen drug dealers. And the risk is great, the consequences punishing.

The Class of 41 offers a sobering footnote: Of the 13 young drug dealers who are no longer children, 12 have been arrested as adults, many on narcotics charges.

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