“Crime is everywhere,” said Pastor Norman L. Eaton of the Greater Hope Worship Center. Eaton was attending a community forum on juvenile justice on Nov. 15 at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC sponsored by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. He runs an after-school program through his church and said catching young people before they commit crimes and enter the juvenile justice system should be the focus for reducing juvenile crime.
“Because once they get into the system, it’s kind of too late,” he said. “But what happens when they come out? What facilities or activities are out there for the re-entry program? That’s what I want to hear.”
What Eaton heard at the three-hour forum, “Court in the Community: Juvenile Justice,” was an hour-long, presentation by Juvenile Division chief Gavin Patashnick detailing the path taken when a youth enters the juvenile justice system, followed by a panel discussion with Baltimore City Schools Police chief Akil Hamm; Capt. Jason Yerg of Baltimore City Police Northwestern Division; Mujahid Muhammad of KEYS Development; Dwain E. Johnson of the Department of Juvenile Services; and Pastor Billy H. Stanfield of New Vision Youth Services.
The forum comes during an upsurge in crimes committed by juveniles in the Park Heights area, including carjackings and home invasions. City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) earlier this month urged hundreds of constituents to email impact statements telling the State’s Attorney’s Office how they have been personally affected by crime.
Patashnick urged those affected by juvenile crime, including victims and witnesses, to come forward, because he said too often victims don’t see the value in the juvenile system and cases fall apart without their testimony. Assistance is available, he added, including help navigating the system, court accompaniment, counseling referrals and possible victim relocation referral and restitution.
Audience interaction was kept to a minimum by Patashnick’s long presentation, but what questions and comments there were touched not only on frustration at a system they see as inadequate, but also on people asking how they could help.
One man asked what could be done about juveniles who have been arrested multiple times but subsequently released. “Because it seems that’s a total failure of the system, if whatever you recommend, he’s back out on the street again immediately,” he said.
When a youth in the system is resistant to rehabilitation, evident by multiple arrests, Patashnick said the State’s Attorney’s Office can “waive” the youth up to the adult system.
Concerning preventive programs that may help stop juveniles from committing crimes in the first place, Patashnick said there should be a multisystem effort to identify youth at risk — as young as elementary school. And that looking at the problem as a public health crisis might be beneficial.
Audience members also asked about the accountability of programs as a youth moves through the system (there is mandatory reporting while a juvenile is in the system); whether curfews were still in effect (they are, depending on age and time of year); and if juvenile crime stats are available by ZIP code (they are not because of confidentiality).
The value of joining police community relations councils was touted, and after-school and mental-health programs, such as KEYS Development, a mental health program for transitioning youth, were highlighted as ways to deter youth from getting into trouble.
“[We] identify therapists, social workers and mentors and put them in the same communities and schools that they actually grew up in,” Muhammad of KEYS Development said.
Hamm said city schools police officers try to mitigate youth crime by building better relationships with students, improving policies and through family and safety programs.
Funding cuts that have eliminated or reduced initiatives such as recreation and PAL centers and the DARE program troubled Yerg. He said police need to re-establish relationships that have been lost and recommended people participate in mentoring programs.
After her son was murdered, Kathryn Cooper Nicholas said she founded Sisters Saving the City to provide services to youth in the Park Heights area but has been disappointed in trying to partner with the juvenile justice system.
“I went to juvenile justice so many times up there in Reisterstown Road Plaza, and they turned me away,” she said. “They said we already have partnerships with other organizations, so we really can’t work with you. It’s hard for the community; we’re there, we see what’s going on. But we all need to work collectively. We have to do something.”
Johnson urged her contact him directly about partnering with programs and services.
Although more than half of the more than 100 attendees left before the end, whether because of frustration with the format or because it ran three hours, some who remained were encouraged.
“We are beginning to talk together,” said Patricia Rideout Howard. “Now I want to see the movement of us coming together and including our youth in this type of meeting. I feel that most or a lot of them want the same thing that we want.”
Del. Bilal Ali (D-District 41) thought the meeting was helpful.
“We have to move beyond our anger and deal with some of those causes,” he said. “People are outraged. Up here in Northwest Baltimore, we have had more carjackings, more incidents with juveniles, and people are at their wit’s end. Kids need support systems, they need parents, they need mentors, and I think you’ve seen a wide array of organizations that a lot of the constituents weren’t aware. No matter what your faith is, you’re still charged to make a contribution to help find a solution.”
Attendee Mark Hart appreciated a thorough presentation of the juvenile justice system and ideas on moving forward.
“It’s also important that the community’s involved and that you have different aspects of the community coming together,” he said. “Sometimes the government can get clogged up, but this gives us an idea of what we need to do. Tikkun olam. We care about taking the light to the world.”