Teen drug dealers

December 14, 2006

Another troubled teenager killed, shot repeatedly on the street where he lived in East Baltimore. Guiliano M. Santos, who had been suspended from high school for fighting, was heading down the wrong road for some time. First it was arrests for trespassing and assault; then stealing cars and, in the last year or so of his life, five drug offenses and a gun charge. He would have celebrated his 18th birthday Saturday, but he had already graduated into the adult world of crime.

In Baltimore, the drug trade has ensnared kids as young as 10. Juveniles arrested on drug charges so far this year total about 2,300, city officials say. The 16- and 17-year-olds dominate the trade, but the criminal justice data make abundantly clear that there is a fault line where the numbers of kids arrested for drugs begins to multiply drastically. The statistics for this year alone put that danger zone at ages 12 and 13.

Those are the kids who should command our attention. This is the group that, once they've picked up a second charge, should be diverted to supervised intervention programs to try to keep them out of the game - and out of the line of fire. Because after age 12, the number of drug arrests of children climbs steeply.

So far this year, the statistics show that 26 children age 12 were arrested on drug charges. The number of 13-year-olds arrested is nearly five times greater: 114. The number of 14-year-olds arrested is twice that number and then some: 292. The number of 15-year-olds more than doubles to 657 arrested for drugs. And lastly, the 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds charged with drug offenses totaled 914 and 992, respectively.

The data underscore why middle school is a critical time, not only for social and emotional development but because it is a gateway to drug activity. The drug statistics are also instructive because they identify the repeat offenders: 151 kids had three or more arrests for drugs. They also should be singled out before they get deeper into the drug trade.

Juvenile authorities, police, prosecutors and the courts should corral this group for intensive supervision and treatment services in the community in an effort to halt their downward slide. How many times does a child have to be found delinquent before he receives the services or treatment that could possibly make a difference in his young life?

Too often the juvenile justice system resembles one big conveyor belt that moves youthful offenders through the system but rarely out of it. Kids and teens involved in the drug trade are exposed to violence, susceptible to it - and victims of it.

Take Edward A. Curtis: He had been arrested for theft, breaking and entering and assault before he was 14, when he picked up his first drug charge in 2003. He would be arrested nine more times on drug charges over the next three years.

When police found him shot several times on an East Baltimore street on the night of Sept. 17, he had a plastic bag of crack cocaine tucked inside his cheek and $440 in his pocket. He was the 19th juvenile murdered this year.

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