Historic rates of violence in Baltimore bring a mix of anger and sadness, hopelessness and cynicism. These murders are concentrated by neighborhood, race and age - chiefly among emerging adults. A 2015 study by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found that two zip codes in Baltimore — 21213 to the east and 21217 to the west — accounted for the highest rates of incarceration and victimization.
A new JPI report released this month reveals that Maryland holds the highest percentage of any state of people who are black in prison — more than twice the national average and far surpassing the Southern states we would have expected to rank high. These racial disparities are most pronounced for people serving the longest sentences who were sentenced as emerging adults (18- to 24-year-olds). But all that incarceration isn’t keeping us safer.
With young adults responsible for a significant proportion of crime, and disproportionately represented as victims, investing in this population can have an outsized impact in reducing violence and victimization. When exploring solutions, the typical answers are more arrests and longer sentences. When did we stop listening to people who are suffering? When did we stop asking how we can help, seeking only to punish?
We continue to abandon generations of young people of color. They’ve grown up in neighborhoods with poor performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, high rates of violence and the attendant trauma, and a lack of economic opportunity. They’ve learned since day 1 that we value their lives less. And they often have to grow up too quickly - supporting themselves and their families from a young age, forced into alternative, and often unsafe, economies. For many, that route ends up in the “cradle to jail” pathway of violence and mass incarceration.
This problem is particularly acute among young adults. Recent research on adolescent development has revealed that the brain continues to mature until at least the mid-20s; young adults are often impulsive, sensitive to negative peer influence and at a greater risk of decision making characterized by short-term thinking — much like those under age 18. This is why we established a juvenile court system in the first place. How long is it going to take us to act on the research showing that young adults need similar types of treatment and resources to successfully transition to adulthood?
Unfortunately, instead of listening to these young people and looking for ways to support their development, we discard them through arrest and incarceration. Instead of investing in their dreams, we lock them up for decades. We are wasting generations of business leaders, mentors and community members. Meanwhile, some officials continue to push for harsher and harsher punishments, despite decades of evidence showing little to no positive impact of incarceration on violence.
Ending the violence in Baltimore begins with listening to what people in impacted communities want. It demands that we see the potential in young people and support their passions and dreams. It requires that we reallocate resources from failing criminal justice institutions into improving schools, expanding job training and mentorships, and investing in violence interrupters who have credibility in communities most impacted by violence. The time for change is now, and there is no time to waste.
Ryan King and Keith Wallington.
The writers are Maryland residents and, respectively, director of research and policy at Justice Policy Institute and state based strategist.