Young offenders talk about the 'why' of crime

The Baltimore Sun

The five teens, brought from city juvenile detention facilities to participate in a panel discussion yesterday, talked about recognizing the bad choices they had made and how they wanted to better themselves. But asked whether they felt safe in their neighborhoods, their answers showed just how tenuous staying on the right path can be.

"For me, safe or not safe, it doesn't matter because things can go bad in a second," said one of the teens, who added that he once made $850 a week on the streets slinging drugs. "But if I've got [a gun], I'm the man and you can't say nothing to me. If I don't have a [gun], I'll walk around with a knife."

At one point, the panel moderator asked the teens whether any of their family or friends had been killed.

"This year?" one asked.

In a year when Baltimore saw the fewest homicides in 20 years, the number of juveniles killed in 2008 rose over the prior year by three. There was also an increase in homicides and nonfatal shootings among juveniles under supervision of the Department of Juvenile Services.

A cross-section of officials who deal with juvenile violence - police, social workers, school leaders and the heads of grass-roots organizations - came together yesterday with a goal of brainstorming ideas to better address the at-risk population.

Officials say they have been breaking down barriers between agencies, sharing formerly restricted information, stepping up warrant sweeps and curfew checks and implementing electronic notifications to track youths who cut class or are arrested.

"After many years of not collaborating, we're seeing a willingness of not only do we want to do this, but we feel compelled to do it," said Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore.

The frustration in the room was palpable at times. Andrey Bundley, a former mayoral candidate and city schools administrator, talked of a disconnect between "the streets and the business suites." Others lamented those youths who were killed despite the best intervention efforts, including Mayresa Craft, a 15-year-old who was killed in a double shooting Jan. 4.

The teens who spoke to the crowd talked about the lure of the streets and how important the money they earned through criminal activity was to their families. They said they didn't want to become involved in violence, but some said factors in their neighborhoods and the need to be respected were difficult to overcome.

"It's a cry for help," said Lt. Col. Rick Hite of the Baltimore Police Department. "They're saying they don't want to do these things, but absent of intervention from adults, they're left to take matters into their own hands. They're saying, 'You need to make me feel safe.' "

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