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Youth arrests in Baltimore down 55%, but report finds racial disparities and other problems in justice system

Juvenile arrests in Baltimore have plummeted in recent years, but African-American youth in the city are disproportionately likely to face charges, according to a recent report. It also found that police might not be following the law when transporting youth who are eligible for diversion programs.

The Youth Assessment by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a D.C.-based national nonprofit, noted the stark disparities for the city’s youth and provided recommendations to expand alternatives to justice system involvement and to better connect youth with services.

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“Jurisdictions throughout the country have demonstrated that reductions in the use of incarceration and out-of-home placement, when coupled with investments in community-based services and supports, achieve better public safety outcomes at a lower cost to taxpayers — all while improving outcomes for young people and families in contact with the juvenile justice system,” the report said.

The report was required as part of the consent decree reached between the city and U.S. Justice Department that requires sweeping policing reforms.

“During the original negotiations around the consent decree, it was apparent that there were gaps in the city’s juvenile diversion system,” said Ganesha Martin, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, who previously served as the head of the department responsible for DOJ compliance for the Baltimore Police Department.

“This report provides a road map to address these gaps by creating a strategy to addresses both the systemic and environmental circumstances that lead to crime and involvement with the criminal justice system,” she said.

Acting Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the report “will be pivotal in moving Baltimore City forward under the consent decree,” and will help create systems that provide “equity and inclusion.”

Juvenile arrests in Baltimore have fallen by 55 percent, from 3,485 arrests in 2014 to 1,566 in 2018. Ninety percent of all juveniles arrested Baltimore are African American, but only 64 percent of the city’s youth population is African American.

The 57-page report identifies ways more youth could be diverted from the juvenile system at each stage of the process — from the initial interaction with a police officer, to an arrest, to the Department of Juvenile Services’ determination whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter, to detention.

In Baltimore, for example, only 16 percent of cases reviewed by juvenile services staff during what’s known as the intake stage were diverted. Most cases at that stage — many involving misdemeanors — instead were referred to prosecutors for charges. But in the rest of the state, far more cases — 42 percent — were resolved at intake, and less than half were sent to the state’s attorney’s office for formal processing.

Misdemeanor drug cases are a “significant driver” of varying rates between the city and other jurisdictions, the report said, and officials should consider targeted diversion programs for youth for either substance abuse issues or involvement in drug-dealing.

When officers want to refer kids to a diversion program, they often still end up transporting them, handcuffed, in a police car to the Juvenile Justice Center, where the department has a diversion program coordinator.

The report says the current process for diversion by BPD officers relies on transporting all youth in handcuffs, which raises “questions about the legality” as well as resource issues for police, the report said.

Jenny L. Egan, chief of the juvenile division for the city public defender’s office, calls transporting youth who face misdemeanor complaints “essentially an illegal arrest.”

The Baltimore Police Department did not respond this week to a request for comment for this article.

The Department of Juvenile Services has authority to handle cases informally in certain situations, but must consult with the state’s attorney’s office if the misdemeanor involves a handgun, felony referrals or referrals for crimes of violence. That means the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has to review 65 percent of cases, while prosecutors in other jurisdictions have to review just 23 percent of complaints, the report said.

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The report follows several high-profile incidents involving city youth in recent years, including four city teens who were charged in May in the death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio. Dawnta Harris, the teen who county police said struck Caprio as he fled the scene, was supposed to be on home detention and awaited sentencing for stealing a car. Several public officials expressed outrage and blamed judges, prosecutors and the state department of juvenile services.

Harris, now 17, is the first of four teens charged in the officer’s death and is on trial in Baltimore County.

While such incidents have led some residents and city leaders to call for harsher punishments against youth, the report recommends ways to try to divert children from the juvenile justice system before they rack up multiple contacts, which means they’re less likely to reoffend. Most children grow out of “delinquent behavior,” several studies have found, according to the report.

“The earlier we can divert kids, the better it is for kids,” Egan said. “What we know about kids is that kids get in trouble, but they don’t usually stay in trouble.” Keeping them involved in the system can make things worse, she said.

The public defender’s office was one of more than 30 groups involved in juvenile justice — including the police department, the state’s attorney’s office, local nonprofits and community leaders — that contributed to the report.

When juvenile crime declines, “It doesn’t fit the narrative that people want to have in Baltimore,” Egan said. “Even when it’s down — because of those negative stereotypes, we’re still missing big opportunities to divert kids, and that’s unfortunate.”

As part of the report, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy received survey responses from 55 youth, 175 community members and 25 service providers.

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Tiana Davis, a center staff member and one of the primary authors, said the youth and their families who participated have historically felt their voices weren’t being heard.

“We want to make a change to help young people reach their full potential,” she said.

The report made recommendations to increase diversion rates at various stages, including creating clear policies and training for police, prosecutors and DJS staff. For example, the report said, the police department does not have adequate policies and training for officers that specify how to handle youth.

The 2016 Justice Department investigation that led to Baltimore’s consent decree found that the police department used “unreasonable force against juveniles” as a result of poor policies and training. The investigation also found that many department supervisors continued to reinforce zero tolerance enforcement against youth in African-American neighborhoods where officers were instructed to “clear corners.”

The report said officers can release a youth, issue a citation or make a referral to a program or service, but many officers are unaware of these options.

Diversion efforts are complex, as different youth have different needs and efforts involve multiple agencies. Some kids might require drug treatment, others might need to have more basic needs, like food and keeping the power on at home.

Long-term, the report called for an oversight body that could evaluate youth diversion efforts and “map out the additional potential opportunities identified through the assessment and discuss how they could be integrated into a more formal process for diversion.” The report also said more needs to be done to inform the community who may believe such efforts “simply offer youth a ‘free pass’ with no benefits to the young person or the community.”

The report also offered a future, more public health-centered plan dubbed a “Baltimore New Deal” to target specific programs “for system-involved young people who are facing more serious or violent charges,” as other cities have done.

“We’re hopeful that the different players will consider the recommendations that we’ve made,” Davis said.

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