Death at an early age

The Baltimore Sun

Steven Graham was just 14 when he was shot and killed Nov. 18 while riding his bicycle in front of a fire station in Brooklyn. A few days later, 14-year-old Perrish Parker died after being shot with a handgun he and a friend were wrestling over. And on Dec. 7, Ronnie Jackson, also 14, was fatally shot near his home as he was delivering fruit to an elderly neighbor.

Baltimore ended 2008 with a total of 234 homicides for the year, the lowest number in decades and a significant drop from last year's 282 deaths. Police attribute the decline primarily to an aggressive crime-prevention strategy that targets the most violent offenders, especially those with prior handgun violations. Officials hope further reductions eventually will begin to reverse Baltimore's lamentable reputation as one of the nation's most violent cities.

Yet the progress made last year also highlights a worrisome trend exemplified by the deaths of youngsters like Steven Graham, Perrish Parker and Ronnie Jackson: Homicides in which juveniles were either victims or perpetrators actually increased as a proportion of killings in the city.

Last year, there were 26 homicides in Baltimore involving youngsters ages 14 to 17. That was a slight drop from the 27 juvenile homicides recorded the previous year. But because there were nearly 50 fewer homicides overall last year, the proportion of homicides involving juveniles increased, from 9.5 percent in 2007 to just over 11 percent in 2008.

Although that's still a relatively small proportion of total homicides committed in the city, the fact that one in 10 murders involved a juvenile should give pause to city officials hoping to recast Baltimore's image as an attractive place to live and work.

The growing proportion of gun violence involving juveniles either as victims or as perpetrators reflects a national trend. Even as cities such as Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and New York have watched their overall homicide rates decline, the number of juvenile homicide victims increased 54 percent between 2002 and 2007, while the number of juveniles charged with homicides rose 47 percent over the same period.

Nationally, experts link the increase to various factors, including a growth in gang membership, cuts in social programs for young people and the diversion of police resources away from poor communities to prosecute the war on terror. Experts are particularly concerned by a growing racial disparity in which the biggest increases in juvenile homicides are occurring mainly among inner-city African-American youths.

There may be little Baltimore can do to escape these larger national trends, but that doesn't mean the city shouldn't redouble efforts to build on the gains that were made last year. The high-visibility police presence in the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods undoubtedly helped bring down the homicide rate, as did the targeting of known violent offenders. The pressure on the latter should remain unrelenting.

The city also must bolster public health initiatives such as Operation Safe Streets, Operation Safe Kids and the Violence Intervention Project at Maryland Shock Trauma, which mobilize communities against gun crimes and offer intensive case management counseling to shooting victims and at-risk youths.

At the same time, officials need to recognize that this isn't simply a policing problem. Many young people in poor communities see themselves with few prospects for jobs or other opportunities to improve their lives. Expanding after-school programs, recreational activities and social programs for youngsters may seem like unaffordable frills at a time of shrinking municipal budgets, but they can pay off big in terms of saving young lives.

Until the city finds effective ways of investing in the future of its young people, whatever progress police make in reducing homicides is likely to be only temporary.

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