Locking young people up won’t result in less crime
In December, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan laid out a series of new initiatives to address violence in Baltimore. Among other things, these steps include introducing legislation that would increase the length of sentences for certain gun crimes and creating a new strategic partnership with the Department of Juvenile Services and the Baltimore Police Department with the aim of reducing youth violence in the city.
While these efforts are well-intentioned, to successfully address youth crime in Baltimore, policymakers must first refute two key myths present in the current narrative: that Baltimore’s youth crime trends are an enigma and not, at least in part, a response to preventable circumstances faced by youth and the belief that locking youth up for long periods is the best way to reduce crime.
Young people in Baltimore often face difficult circumstances. Baltimore is home to approximately 123,000 children, many of whom live in poverty and have experienced trauma. Making matters worse, there are few recreational and economic opportunities available to divert young people’s time and attention toward more productive activities.
However, efforts led this summer by the newly created Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success show that by coordinating with city and community partners, such as local non-profit organizations and businesses, Baltimore can successfully address these issues. Following widely reported youth crime around the Baltimore Inner Harbor during Memorial Day weekend, the office launched BmoreLive in partnership with the community. This initiative provided meaningful and entertaining programming over the summer for youth that promotes a strong sense of community and advances public safety. Due in part to these efforts, the Baltimore Police Department reported to staff at Advocates for Children and Youth only one youth encounter, no youth arrests and no police reports naming youth in the Inner Harbor over Fourth of July weekend.
By continuing to identify gaps in services, partnering with community actors and promoting youth development, Baltimore can reduce youth crime while helping young people acquire the skills and connections that equip them for future academic and economic success.
But that’s not the only paradigm shift that needs to occur to reduce youth crime and violence in the city. Policymakers also need to abandon the old “tough on crime” narrative that has helped Maryland earn the title of the state with the highest incarceration rate of black youth ages 18 to 24 serving long prison sentences. When looking specifically at young black males, one finds this is a rate 25% higher than the second biggest incarcerator of this population on the list — Mississippi. A better strategy would be to replace a law enforcement focus with one that adopts a public health and youth development lens to fighting crime.
Studies show that youth incarceration generally fails to reduce recidivism and may actually increase the likelihood a child will be incarcerated as an adult. Additionally, research suggests that incarceration reduces a child’s likelihood of completing high school. And national survey data suggest incarceration can compound trauma by placing youth in danger of being sexually victimized. When youth are incarcerated in the adult system, further harm may occur. For these reasons, youth incarceration should be used sparingly.
Even then, policymakers can aid public safety by assessing current community supervision and youth incarceration practices and identifying areas for improvement. The recently formed Juvenile Justice Reform Council, created through state legislation during the last General Assembly session, presents policymakers with such an opportunity
However, true change will only occur when policymakers invest more in bolstering current community-based services and divert more youth away from the court system as cities like Los Angeles have done. Research suggests diverted youth have lower recidivism rates than youth placed on probation and, more broadly, youth who are traditionally processed in the justice system. And services such as Multisystemic Therapy — a type of family-focused treatment intervention — have proven to decrease violent recidivism while serving youth in the community.
Contrary to the popular narrative, Baltimore doesn’t need to pass more tough-on-crime laws or put more youth behind bars to improve public safety. Rather, state, city and community leaders can promote Baltimore’s restoration by investing more in prevention efforts and reforming the way they respond to crime with a greater emphasis on evidence-based, sustainable community services.