A terrifying cell-phone video of a Chicago high school honors student being beaten to death by a brawling mob threw a national spotlight on the issue of youth violence and the toll it takes on victims. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited the city to open what they called a national conversation about the homicide epidemic that kills dozens of Chicago students every year.
As officials there scramble to adopt new strategies to keep kids safe, they might look to Baltimore, where efforts to quell juvenile violence are focusing on identifying the youngsters most at risk before they are killed or commit a crime. What they would find is a city where early-intervention efforts are making strides but where violence is stubbornly difficult to stop.
Homicide is the leading cause of death among Baltimore residents between the ages of 15 and 34, and juveniles in the city suffer fatal injuries about twice as frequently as in Maryland or the U.S. as a whole.
Last year there were 83 nonfatal shootings involving juveniles in Baltimore and 29 juvenile homicides. So far this year, 13 juveniles have been killed and 40 were injured in shootings. Clearly, the city has a long way to go in clamping down on juvenile homicides, but the 38 percent decline in the rate of nonfatal shootings suggests that at least some policies are producing results.
A Baltimore City Health Department report released in August found that both juvenile homicide victims and perpetrators are among the city's most troubled children. They are more likely to have been victims of child abuse or neglect, to live in unstable households or be homeless, to be chronically truant from school (and to perform poorly when they do attend) and to have a record of arrests and convictions in the juvenile court system well before they are ever charged as adults.
Dealing with youngsters with such complex, overlapping problems poses serious challenges for school and law-enforcement officials, mental health providers and social service workers, who must intervene in troubled youngsters' lives with a degree of coordination that is difficult to achieve.
The health department report suggests that a better understanding of the factors contributing to youth violence might help authorities identify the youth at highest risk, but there's still no assurance the resources needed to intervene effectively will be available.
Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the youth violence crisis is the difficulty law enforcement officials face in bringing justice to the victims of shootings and homicides. Of the 13 cases in which children were murdered this year, 10 are still classified as open, meaning no one has been arrested or charged with a crime. Last year there were 29 juvenile homicides, of which 17 are still open. The proportion of closures in nonfatal shootings is similar, with more than half the cases still unsolved.
The fact that most of the people who commit such crimes are literally getting away with murder endangers the entire community; these killers will continue to commit murders and other serious crimes for as long as they are at large. Police may never be able to catch them all, but what the city can do is redouble its efforts to prevent the rise of a new generation of murderers and victims by intervening early in the lives of its most troubled children.