One way Maryland officials can help reduce Baltimore violence

During conversations over the summer about Baltimore’s depressing pace of shootings and homicides, and again yesterday in a community center on the east side, the issue of age came up — the age of victims, and the age at which intervention might have changed the course of their lives.

The age factor is notable because we tend to think of homicide victims as young — that is, between 18 and 25.

But the average age of victims is higher than you might expect.

While 73 of the 245 victims so far this year were in the 18-to-25 age group, 86 were between 26 and 34, and 50 were between 35 and 50. A few were older than that.

In this month so far, the average age of victims is almost 35. The average age of all victims between May 31 and Sept. 11, the period I reviewed, was 36.

The last year in which Baltimore had fewer than 300 homicides was 2014, when there were 211. More than half of the victims were between 26 and 50.

So there’s been a trend toward slightly older victims.

What does that mean? For one thing, it means we’ve missed an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people at risk of killing or being killed, or both.

And I’m not talking about intervention when they were children. Of course, we would see better outcomes in the lives of boys and young men if they had excellent childhoods — out of poverty, out of depressing neighborhoods, in good schools and on track for vocational training or college and, ultimately, decent jobs. So many Baltimore children who are born into disadvantaged families never climb the ladder, and too many boys, in particular, end up making bad choices and going to prison.

Of course, we need to do more for the children of this city.

Of course, influencing boys in positive ways is critical.

But boyhood is not the only time in their lives when intervention can work.

I’m talking about helping them after they’ve become adults and been given an inmate number.

It’s tempting to declare that intervention at 25 or 30 is too late, that once a young man gets on the criminal track, it’s impossible to steer him off.

I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that every 21-year-old who goes to prison for five years for selling heroin is a lost cause. I would not write off any 25-year-old who’s doing time for illegal possession of a handgun.

But judging from the trends I see in the age of homicide victims, it’s clear to me we’ve not done enough.

Over the years, police commissioners and other city officials have relayed an unvarnished truth about killings in Baltimore — many of the victims were themselves known gang members or in some way heavily involved in the city's violent drug trade. A bit more than a decade ago, when Leonard Hamm was commissioner, police found that more than 80 percent of homicide victims and 80 percent of suspects had criminal records, and that more than 65 percent of each group had drug arrests.

Last year, an analysis by the Baltimore Police Department found that nearly 90 percent of the 344 victims in 2015 had criminal records. Of those, 80 percent had a drug arrest while some 60 percent had been arrested for a violent crime. Half of the victims had a gun charge.

Starting in 2005, I discovered in a series of interviews with dozens of ex-offenders, all of them city residents between 25 and 45, that they had no desire to return to criminal life.

The vast majority of the men were motivated: They had wasted years behind the walls, and they feared slipping into old ways, getting arrested and returning to prison if they could not find a job that paid a livable wage. They worried about all the gunfire, too.

I spoke to only a couple of men I considered hard-core — that is, stuck in their ways and making only a half-hearted attempt to go straight. Most of the men who contacted me over the last 12 years wanted to stop being embarrassments to their mothers, and they wanted to work. Several of them expressed a desire to support their children.

Maryland has done an admirable job of reducing recidivism — the rate at which former inmates return to prison within three years of their release. But the state needs to do more to prepare Baltimore men, specifically, for successful re-entry. The rising age of homicide victims and the fact that so many of them have criminal records suggest we are still missing the best opportunity to intervene in a lasting way.

From the moment a man enters a Maryland prison, all efforts should be focused on the end game — making him a better man by the day he gets out. It will save lives — his or someone else’s.

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