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Two teens caught up in the justice system have lessons for Md.

This year, Dawnta Harris, 16, was charged with first-degree murder for allegedly running over Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio in a stolen Jeep while facilitating home burglaries.

Two years ago, Lavar Douglas, 18, was shot by a Coppin State University police officer after allegedly opening fire on a moving car.

Two Baltimore City teens: one charged with killing a police officer, the other killed by a police officer. Both had previous encounters with the juvenile justice system.

Dawnta Harris was arrested four times in six months and attended a juvenile court hearing less than two weeks before he was arrested and charged with the murder of Officer Caprio. Lavar Douglas was charged as an adult when he was 17 for illegally possessing a handgun, though his case was ultimately transferred back to juvenile court. We don’t know what happened in the juvenile court, but we do know that he was arrested again and charged with selling drugs. He was out on bail, awaiting trial when he died.

Both of these young men had been on someone’s radar not long before these tragedies occurred. There were opportunities to change their trajectories, but those opportunities were missed. Why? For too long, the answer has been: “I don’t know” or “It’s someone else’s fault.” This is unacceptable and must change.

In a report released last month, Fact Check: A Survey of Available Data on Juvenile Crime in Baltimore City, the Abell Foundation analyzed available data on juvenile crime, arrests and outcomes in Baltimore City. Researchers found that the number of juvenile arrests for violent crime has gone up and that most cases involving youth charged as adults (for committing violent crimes) are transferred back to juvenile court for disposition: 67 percent of cases in 2017 — up from just 19 percent in 2013. Additionally, case outcomes depend largely on the judge assigned to them, creating an environment for judge-shopping and inequitable application of the law. The report’s central finding, however, was that there is a dearth of publicly available data related to juvenile violent crime, including information on how well our systems and institutions are working to prevent it.

Last legislative session, we introduced legislation that would have created a Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council to convene stakeholders, require the reporting of data, study relevant best practices and make recommendations regarding improvements to the juvenile justice system. The legislation would have provided a pathway for national organizations that specialize in juvenile justice reform to facilitate progress in Maryland and specifically called for greater transparency related to the results of complaints against juveniles and the success of our juvenile justice system to divert young people from subsequent delinquency. In other words, it would have helped us understand what happens to the youth who are arrested in our neighborhoods. Do they get the support that they need to change their paths? Do they reoffend? Do they successfully re-enter the community? And how are we measuring success?

In the past, we have been too quick to blame single parts of a complex juvenile justice system. We focus frenetic reform on extreme cases where we find the most egregious missteps or errors. This often takes the form of blaming prosecutors or the judges or the Department of Juvenile Services or the school system or the police. This targeted, reactive approach yields attempts at quick policy fixes to explain away tragic incidents.

The key takeaway from the Abell Foundation’s report, though, is that our approach will continue to fail if we do not have comprehensive data to know what’s working and what’s not. Reforming Maryland’s juvenile justice system isn’t about finding one broken spoke in a wheel. Effective reform will require actual knowledge of how each of the contributing institutions functions and, more importantly, how each part works together with the core purpose of improving outcomes for young people and communities.

Dawnta Harris’ and Lavar Douglas’ stories make clear that we have a lot to learn and a long way to go in order to improve public safety and outcomes for young people in Baltimore City and across the state of Maryland. We can do better. But we won’t unless and until we make the choice to bring all parts of the system together, use data to make decisions and establish ongoing performance measures for the future.

Sen. Bill Ferguson (bill.ferguson@ senate.state.md.us) represents Baltimore City's 46th District in the Maryland General Assembly and serves as the director of reform initiatives at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. Del. Luke Clippinger (Luke.Clippinger@ house.state.md.us) represents Baltimore City’s 46th District in the Maryland House of Delegates and is an assistant states attorney in Anne Arundel County.

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