Young And Dangerous

Our View: The State's Juvenile Justice System Isn't Set Up To Deal With Today's Violent, Repeat Youthful Offenders, And It Leaves Vulnerable Communities Less Safe Than Ever

August 02, 2009

The case of 17-year-old Lamont Davis, who was arrested last month and charged as an adult with shooting a 5-year-old girl in the head and wounding another youth, should have been a wake-up call for the state Department of Juvenile Services. The teen had been under DJS monitoring for a year when the shooting occurred, and during that time he had been arrested four times. He was awaiting sentencing in juvenile court after confessing to an assault and robbery committed in April.

Anyone looking at Mr. Davis' record could have guessed he should never have been allowed back on the streets. Yet incredibly, the most stringent supervision DJS says it could impose was home detention, with a GPS monitoring device strapped to his ankle. He was still wearing it when police came to arrest him. It may as well have been a pair of socks for all it contributed to public safety.

Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy says there may be hundreds of troubled youngsters like Mr. Davis - violent repeat offenders who fall between the cracks of the current juvenile justice system. They're too young to be tried and locked up as adults unless they kill or seriously injure someone. But they're also too dangerous to be let out on the streets without the kind of strict supervision they would get in an adult secure detention facility. When judges send them home for what's euphemistically called "community detention," they become a menace to themselves and to everyone around them.

Ms. Jessamy argues that the system set up 40 years ago is ill-suited for today's young armed robbers, drug dealers and carjackers. What's needed is a specialized, secure detention facility for young, violent, repeat offenders where they can be rehabilitated separate from hardened adult criminals and get the treatment they need without endangering public safety. Alternatively, legislators should consider allowing courts to send violent offenders to a secure juvenile detention facility until age 18, then move them to an adult facility to serve additional time.

The problem is most serious among juveniles between 16 and 18. Many of them have exhausted the traditional resources of DJS: They've been kicked out or run away from a series of group homes and treatment facilities, and though they're still legally under the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, they've racked up arrests and convictions for increasingly serious crimes.

At present, very few of these youthful violent offenders remain under any kind of supervision past 18. The state has a 48-bed secure juvenile facility in Frederick and is planning two more in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. But they can't handle more than a fraction of the need, even if the state supplements capacity with out-of-state placements.

Clearly, what we have now isn't working; more than half the juveniles who are returned to their communities after committing serious crimes are rearrested within a year. They are not being rehabilitated, and the juvenile justice system's failure endangers the very communities it's supposed to protect.

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