Baltimore can't jail its way out of juvenile crime crisis

I am a black professional woman who seven years ago chose to live in Baltimore city. Over the years, I have been a victim of theft and personal assault by juveniles twice, and I live with an increasing amount of fear and vigilance in a city that I love. The recent Halloween night robberies and assaults have escalated my fear for my safety because these incidents happened close to the area where I live. I was also saddened by the fact that these crimes were reportedly committed by juveniles, some of whom were identified as young girls.

During a neighborhood “public safety walk” last week, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Davis emphasized the need for stepped up police presence in the area, as well as strict accountability of juveniles who are often repeat offenders. More than 200 people had gathered for this event, held so soon after the assaults, making the speech seem appropriate. Understandably, everyone wants and expects to hear a commitment to increase police surveillance as well as to expeditious and serious consequences to those who terrorize and attack innocent people.

This left me with the question I have asked myself repeatedly over the years: How did we get here in the first place, and why are things escalating now? How did 13-,14-,15- year old kids become hardened criminals with no fear of consequences or even fear of harm to themselves? These are complicated questions that are laced with highly charged historical, socio-economic and racial undertones that we all would rather avoid. What seems obvious though is that this city cannot incarcerate its way out of the juvenile criminal disaster in which it finds itself.

When juveniles from urban areas commit crimes in predominantly affluent neighborhoods there is a clear “us versus them” dichotomy that is often starkly demarcated by race and economic power. One group is alien to the other at best, an adversary of sorts at worst. As difficult as it is to feel compassion for kids who without a trace of empathy beat elderly women or shoot bystanders, can we see communities who are victims of juvenile crimes directly engaging the perpetrators in a conversation — if nothing else to bring awareness to our shared humanity? (I believe there are community activists who are working on similar effort, but I don't know how they are organized or where they work). Perhaps one of the greatest services the police can do for this city is to to bring about a safe venue where such engagements are encouraged and facilitated.

Regardless of color or background, these kids are all of our kids. The tragedy of their lost childhood and their dismal future is the product of this country’s shared history and a collective burden we are all facing together. Things seem to be getting worse, and this may track the overall national/international trend, but the best solution is often local. Engaging each other in difficult conversations and finding root causes for obstinate social problems will empower us on how to handle our future predicaments and in no way weakens our ability to intervene where needed. Both can and should be done at the same time.

Stepped up presence of police, who are fair and above reproach themselves, is likely to improve some of the breach in trust between the justice system and this city. It also has the potential to improve the community’s willingness to participate in averting and/or reporting crimes. Our safety to some extent is dependent up on our practice as individuals, the community as a whole and the police who are here to protect us. But this may also be a time when we are called to an uncomfortable place to engage those we consider to be “The Others.”

We are at a critical point when doing nothing is not acceptable, but doing more of what has not worked before is even worse.

Dr. Sosena Kebede (soskeb@gmail.com) is a physician with the Johns Hopkins Community Physicians at Remington. The thoughts and ideas expressed here are her own personal views.

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