How not to solve Baltimore's problem of juvenile crime

Mayor Catherine Pugh’s all-hands-on-deck approach to Baltimore’s crime is a necessary and overdue development. She has long stressed the need for the city’s response to extend beyond just the police department, correctly seeing workers from the Health, Public Works, Recreation and Parks and other departments as playing crucial roles in changing Baltimore’s trajectory. Creating a formalized structure for such collaboration in the form of daily meetings between dozens of department heads and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis should help ensure that everyone who works for the city gets on board. The size of these gatherings risks making them unwieldy, but the idea is good.

However, there is one element of this new urgency to combat crime that gives us great pause. Several high profile, violent crimes involving juveniles have the city on edge, prompting calls for a get-tough approach, with Commissioner Davis arguing that more young offenders need to be tried and punished in the adult criminal system. “Our lawmakers need to strengthen the consequences and lower the threshold for detention,” he said.

Panic over youth crime in Baltimore is not new; every few years, a string of incidents captures the public’s imagination and leads to calls for police to do something. That is not to say that the recent concern isn’t warranted. City officials say that while overall arrests of youth are down compared to last year, there has been a spike in serious crimes committed by minors. Some of the incidents — assaults, carjackings and armed robberies — are disturbing. It is certainly fair to ask whether the state Department of Juvenile Services could do a better job of monitoring and rehabilitating youth offenders. Creating an undercover unit of young officers and cadets to target youth gangs, as Mr. Davis has done, is a good idea. It is absolutely right that the police and school system should seek to coordinate their efforts to address youth who are prone to violence, as they are starting to do. And there is no question that city officials are right to call on families and communities to do a better job of reining in troubled young people.

But the one approach we know will not solve the problem and will likely make it worse is to punish more young people in the adult criminal justice system. Whatever benefit may be achieved by taking youth offenders off the streets today will come at a tremendous cost when these young people eventually emerge from adult prisons.

The fundamental difference between the adult criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system is that the former primarily aims to punish offenders whereas the latter aims to rehabilitate them before they become hardened adult criminals. Commissioner Davis complains that some 90 percent of juveniles charged as adults for serious offenses eventually have their cases moved to juvenile court, where the sentences they are likely to receive if convicted are considerably less harsh than those they would encounter in the adult system. But that’s actually the outcome the law is designed to ensure. Courts have repeatedly ruled that in all but the most egregious cases juvenile offenders should not be treated with the same severity as adults because their capacity for moral reasoning and ability to foresee the consequences of their actions are not yet fully developed. Taking into account youths’ diminished capacity to distinguish right from wrong is the humane thing to do. It’s also the practical one. We can seek to rehabilitate young offenders, or we can outsource the task of their moral development to hardened adult criminals in prison.

We’ve offered plenty of criticism of Maryland Department of Juvenile Services over the years, but there is no question that it has made great strides under Secretary Sam Abed, who has been working across two administrations in Annapolis to find better ways to deal with the state’s troubled youth that don’t consign another generation to the revolving door that leads from crime to prison to release followed by recidivism and reimprisonment. It’s a vicious circle that almost ensures that offenders will never break out of the cycle of crime. If those efforts at education, mental health counseling and drug treatment programs aren’t enough, the answer is to improve them, not abandon them.

There are many explanations for juvenile delinquency and crime, including poverty, poor parenting, a self-absorbed popular culture that glorifies the narcissistic personality and instant gratification, and a lack of opportunity for meaningful achievement in the legitimate work world — all of which are driving the sense of despair felt by many of today’s alienated young people. Better policing strategies and undercover operations can help curb the worst of these impulses, but they cannot fundamentally change the fraught economic and social circumstances into which too many of the city’s young people are coming of age today. We may not know how to solve all these problems, but the one thing that’s guaranteed not to work is locking up more young people in adult facilities where they’re likely to be brutalized by the inmates and where they’re virtually certain to come out worse people than they were when they went in.

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