Too far, too fast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHAT CAN ONE SAY about a kid like Eric Brown? The 5-foot-7 14-year-old had troubles at home, troubles at school and, eventually, troubles that sent him through juvenile court more than once. Now he stands accused of shooting a man to death in the company of another man, and his troubles are multiplied.

Because the charge is so serious, state law requires that Eric be treated as an adult and tried in court. His lawyer may request that his case be transferred to the juvenile division, where it would proceed as a hearing and perhaps lead to detention and treatment. But the barriers are high. There is a real chance he will stay in an adult-size city jail cell for the rest of the year, and in prison for longer if he is convicted.

With such treatment, it seems hardly likely that this 14-year-old will see in himself satisfied the state's goal that "every child will become a self-sufficient, productive adult." But that doesn't mean the state should stop trying.

As The Sun's Del Quentin Wilber reported Friday, all the state agencies tasked to ensure the safety and success of "at risk" youths were on Eric Brown's case. Schools knew he needed extra help, social workers visited and knew his home life was harsh. He got assessment, counseling, group therapy and stays at quite a few group homes. He slipped by them, literally, in the last group home -- the day before the killing, the court issued a warrant for his arrest for being AWOL from the home.

But however criminal their actions, few people are unsalvageable at 14. That the state hasn't cracked this one's tough-guy shell isn't reason to give up and throw him to the not-so-tender mercies of an adult penitentiary should he be tried and found guilty. He should stay in juvenile care.

While convicted juveniles are held in segregated sections of adult prisons and have some schooling and life-skills training, mostly they are simply growing older, more angry and set in the ways that got them locked up. The state Division of Corrections recognizes this and is studying how to do more assessment and build individualized study and counseling plans, but today's teen convicts often just sit.

We call juveniles such as Eric Brown "at risk" because social, and sometimes physical, barriers impede their ability to become contributing, law-abiding adults: poverty, single-parent upbringing, problems in school. They feel blackballed from the start; they can easily fall onto the wrong path, and there is often little in their lives that can pull them back, outside of state intervention.

Some kids may indeed be hopelessly lost to society by the age of 14, but the vast majority, including those charged with serious crimes, are not. And the last thing they need is the state -- their last resort -- proving it is willing to throw their lives away.

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