There is no denying that last year was a historically violent year in Baltimore. A shift in crime patterns meant that portions of the city not accustomed to high rates of crime saw increases in both crimes and arrests. The narrative around this increase in crime quickly focused on “out of control youth.” But the numbers tell a more complicated story.
Over the past year, Baltimore experienced a slight rise in some but a decrease in other categories of youth arrests. Youth arrests for second-degree assault were down 5 percent from last year. Youth arrests for assault and robbery were down 7 percent from last year. Youth arrests for heroin distribution were down 24 percent from last year. In a year where Baltimore set a record for its homicide rate, youth were arrested and charged in only 5 of the 343 murders in the city, accounting for less than 1.5 percent of Baltimore City's charged murder cases.
The statistics show that our young people are not the primary drivers of crime in the city. Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY) is alarmed by public conversations developing plans to “crack down” on youth crime. We are very concerned that this rhetoric will lead to the reimplementation of failed crime reduction strategies of the past (e.g., zero tolerance policing, broken windows policing, and mandatory minimums). As a city, we cannot go backward.
This false narrative has led to some bad bills this legislative session. These bills would cause more youth to be charged as adults. Historically, these proposals have disproportionately been used against persons of color — they have destroyed families and communities. But whatever happens this session, we need to focus on changing the narrative about our youth.
That is why ACY, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and OSI-Baltimore, recently launched our Rethink Baltimore campaign. Rethink Baltimore, a juvenile justice awareness campaign, goes to Baltimore neighborhoods and community members to find out the complex reality that youth face. We are gathering stories. Our goal is to find out the “why” and listen to the solutions that citizens are not only recommending but also doing. This is a community effort that will help open our collective eyes and to help change the youth narrative. Yes, we must hold young people accountable for their crimes. However, old retreaded policies are not the solution. ACY firmly believes that effective youth justice policy does three things: serves and rehabilitates young people, honors the victims of crimes and ensures public safety. Right now, our youth justice efforts fail in all three areas.
With all the turmoil caused by compromised law enforcement officers and the “get tough on crime” rhetoric, we must be sober and resist ignoring the facts in order to find a convenient scapegoat—our youth. We must “Rethink Baltimore.”
Maurice Vann, Baltimore
The writer is the juvenile justice policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth.
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