Before they kill

October 08, 2006

Devon T. Richardson is 14 years old, stands under 5 feet tall, and weighs 80 pounds. According to police, he is also a killer.

Devon is accused of shooting a 67-year-old woman as she walked from a bus, making him at least the 15th person under the age of 18 to be arrested in Baltimore on murder charges this year. That's higher than last year's total of 11 juvenile murder suspects and is more consistent with figures from 2004 and 2003, when there were 17 and 16 juvenile suspects, respectively.

Whatever the number, it's too many.

Despite their tender ages, many of these juvenile suspects have already come into contact with the Police Department and the Department of Juvenile Services. That's why law enforcement officials are using a variety of tactics to try to divert youths from either a first crime or subsequent crimes. The Police Department recently launched Bigs in Blue, hoping to recruit more officers to be mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and they have long provided recreational and other activities through 18 Police Athletic League centers that serve an average of 1,200 kids ages 7 to 17 every day. At least one officer from each of the city's nine police districts is rounding up truants every school day; in just one week last month, at least 146 kids were sent back to school, and some of them and their families will be connected with needed social services.

City health officials try to protect youths who are at risk of violence through Operation Safe Kids and specialized treatment programs. Baltimore school officials are also looking for ways to keep kids from dropping out. They are putting more adults, including reading and math coaches as well as counselors, in the middle grades, where student behavioral issues become more pronounced. Schools are also using some additional resources to offer more art, music and enrichment activities designed to engage students. And countless community organizations provide after-school activities and other worthy programs. But too many kids are slipping through the cracks.

What's needed is a more coordinated, expansive and comprehensive effort to save the children most at risk, particularly 14- to 17-year-olds - starting with outreach to more parents and recognition of the need for more parental responsibility. Many police and school officials, community organizers and residents, as well as last year's Sun series on unsupervised teens, point to the fact that hundreds of children in Baltimore are growing up without adequate supervision and discipline at home - making them more receptive to the lure of the drug culture and gangs.

We need only consider Zachary James, a 15-year-old indicted recently on first-degree murder charges in the deaths of two men this summer. His parents could not be located.

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