Preventable crimes not confined to Baltimore

August 11, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

She was just another commuter, slipping money into a self-service fare machine, retrieving a ticket and negotiating the maze of stairs and platforms to her train.

Except this poised traveler, with her white cell phone and pink Hello Kitty bag, couldn't have been more than six years old. She had to rise on tiptoe to use the fare machine, and yet she was riding the Tokyo subway all by her prepossessed little self.

It was an amazing sight, made even more so when I got home from Japan and got caught up on the news here. It was two Mondays ago that I shared a subway car for a couple of stops with the tiny Japanese girl, the same day that the body of a missing 11-year-old boy would be found in the woods near his northeast Baltimore home, and a convicted child-sex offender arrested for the murder.

In a more clear-cut world, the rest of this column would contrast safe, clean and efficient Tokyo with messy, dangerous Baltimore. It would note how in Tokyo, even with its reputation for subway gropers and fetishizers of school girls, an unaccompanied child was blithely able to traverse the city, while in Baltimore, Irvin Harris wasn't even safe in his own neighborhood.

It's a tempting contrast. Tokyo, a chokingly congested city of 12 million, hums along with surprising civility. Pedestrians and even sidewalk bicyclists flow along with a seemingly inbred spatial sensibility, and I was bumped fewer times than on the typical foray into the wide-aisled grocery stores here. People were unfailingly courteous - you'll hear sumimasen, "excuse me" or "sorry," about 100 times a day - and honest: A clerk chased me down a crowded street one morning to return the 10 yen, about nine cents, that she had overcharged me.

At first, the English-language newspapers that I read seemed to reflect these mannerly ways. They were largely sober affairs, filled with stories about foreign affairs and the government.

But interspersed with that fare was some pretty disturbing crime coverage: An emaciated, bruised and burned woman was found last week in the Osaka-area apartment of a 42-year-old man, who was arrested on charges of abusing and imprisoning her. Earlier this week, a woman, already indicted in connection with the murder of a boy in her Akita Prefecture neighborhood, was arrested in the drowning death of her own 9-year-old daughter, whose body was found in a river this spring.

These cases struck me because in both, there were plenty of warning signs that should have been heeded. Unbelievably enough, another starved and bruised woman had turned up dead in the Osaka-area man's apartment two years ago, but police said at the time there wasn't enough evidence to charge him with a crime. Similarly, news reports said that neighbors of the drowned girl had suspected she was being neglected and mistreated by her mother, with a teacher even calling child welfare officials last year. The investigator was not allowed inside the house, and apparently, case closed.

"It becomes painfully obvious," concluded a writer in The Daily Yomiuri newspaper, "none of this had to happen."

Sound familiar?

It's of course the same conclusion you get from reading The Sun's coverage of the stabbing death of Irvin Harris, whose body was found several days after he disappeared in the company of Melvin Jones, the convicted sex offender who had befriended the vulnerable boy and now is charged with his murder.

There weren't just warning signs in this case - there were clanging bells, flashing lights and deafening sirens. Family members and even the principal of Irvin's school knew of Jones' history of sex crimes against children. Prosecutors and a judge who agreed to a 2002 plea agreement that suspended most of Jones' sentence for repeated sexual relations with a 13-year-old boy were certainly well aware of it.

And yet this creep was still out there, not getting the sex-offender treatment that was a condition of the plea deal, hanging around an elementary school, taking kids to Artscape, sending Irvin an "I love you" text message, and, allegedly, choking him during a July 4 outing and threatening to kill him.

Irvin's mother declined to press charges after that incident. When a guardian is that miserably deficient, you hope a neighbor or teacher or some other adult in the village that it takes to raise a child will step in. If not, the next circle out is the police, the courts, the parole officers, the sex offender registries and all those other government-mandated measures designed to protect the Irvins of the world.

Seemingly every safeguard that can be enacted or legislated already has been, and still a boy is dead. The failures here are human ones - letting a sex offender into your family circle, not entering in a convict's files the requirement that he receive treatment. It may be impossible to make stupidity and carelessness criminal - but even the stupid and the careless have to be held accountable.

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