Questioning the Narrative of Increased Youth Violence
City Councilmember Bill Henry and public defender Jenny Egan call for increased youth services, not more policing
BAYNARD WOODS: For the Real News Network I’m Baynard Woods. Reports of increased youth violence have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, resulting in calls for even more police to counter crime. In a Baltimore Sun Op-Ed City Councilman Bull Henry argued that we cannot police our way out of the problem. Henry pointed out that since the 1990s we have increased what we spend trying to deter and catch criminals by 200%, while only increasing what we invest in the programs most likely to keep our children from becoming criminals in the first place by 27%.
Public Defender Jenny Egan, who works in the juvenile courts, took to Twitter to point out that despite the alarmist headlines, juvenile arrests are actually down by 11%. We’re joined in the studio today by Councilman Bill Henry who serves Baltimore’s Fourth District, and by Jenny Egan who works for the Office of the Public Defender. Welcome.
BILL HENRY: Thank you.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thanks for having me.
BAYNARD WOODS: Councilman Henry, you wrote an Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun pointing out the vast disparity between what we spend on enforcing laws and trying to lock juveniles up than we do in keeping them out of the courts in the first place. What made you pick up your pen?
BILL HENRY: Let me put some depressing framing on it. I originally wrote an editorial to that topic about a year and a half into my time on the City Council back in 2009. I was shown a copy of that editorial a couple weeks ago, and I realized, you know, it’s been eight years and not a whole lot has changed. I sat down to think about how to try to make that clarion call again, only this time to make it clearer, that not only do we need to be putting more money into youth development and giving more kids more opportunities to stay on the right path, but for those people who don’t want to do that, because they’re afraid that investing in the future doesn’t take care of crime right now, there are also things that we could be doing that are related to dealing with public safety right now that would still do a better job of addressing motive.
This is the part that’s key for me. If you think about the elements of a crime, the means, the motives, and the opportunity, the police really only address opportunity. The police don’t reduce the means that people have for committing crimes, and they don’t address the motive that people have for committing crimes. All the police do is they can marginally reduce the opportunity to commit a crime. If somebody sees a police officer, they won’t commit then crime right then and there hopefully, and the other thing they do is they try to go catch people who have already committed crimes.
But if you really want to prevent crime, the most effective way to prevent crime is to get people to not need or want to commit the crime in the first place. That’s where youth development is the most bang for the buck, but also programs like Safe Streets, or Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or the as yet unnamed program that suggests giving returning felons guaranteed housing and jobs, so as to reduce recidivism, those are all things that go to motive. They keep people from wanting to commit crimes in the first place, and that’s how you prevent crime.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. I want to come back to some of those tried and true methods of prevention, but Jenny, you deal with juveniles in the courts every day. What do you think about the way that the police are saying that we should respond to juvenile crime?
JENNIFER EGAN: Well, first of all, I want to talk about the wave or this influx of information about youth violence, as if there is some increase or difference in youth violence today, as opposed to a year ago or a decade or go, and it’s simply not true. What’s upsetting is that Councilman Henry had to write this Op-Ed, again, now, after he had submitted almost a similar Op-Ed 10 years ago. What we know about juvenile crime and juvenile arrest is that it has been drastically reduced over the course of the last 20 years.
This kind of narrative about youth violence and there needing to be a tough on crime response hearkens back to the myth of the super predator that came out in the 1990s, and much of the rhetoric coming out of the Baltimore Police Department, and unfortunately for many elected officials and community members, mirrors that same kind of myth of the super predator, that juvenile rehabilitation is for kids who mess up and kids who steal candy, but these new kinds of kids are hyper violent and are doing things that kids didn’t used to do. That’s exactly what people were saying in the 1990s. There were these predictions that if they weren’t locked up forever, there would be a wave and a rise of crime, and murder, and violence, and that just hasn’t come to pass.
That same is true today. When we look at juvenile arrests, they’re down 11% 2017 to 2016, but juvenile arrests and complaints were also down 38% between 2016 and 2015. Juvenile crime is half of what it was only a decade ago, and it was about half of what that was the previous decade. What we are seeing is not a rise in juvenile offense. It’s not a rise in juvenile violence. In fact, what’s shocking is that while Baltimore is seeing record numbers of homicides and a very high homicide rate, the juvenile clearance rate, and that’s the amount of cases that involved a juvenile in those homicides, is at all time lows.
When our homicide rate was very high in the mid-90s, 26% of those cases involved a juvenile defendant or a juvenile was charged in those cases. In 2014, which is our most recent data, it was less than 4%. Although the police are talking about this wave of youth violence, that is not born out by the facts or by the truth, and that’s concerning to me. Why are we talking about youth violence or youth in these dehumanizing, fear mongering ways when that’s not born out by evidence or …? That’s concerning to me.
BAYNARD WOODS: We saw in the last election that Hillary Clinton took a lot of heat for having used the term super predator. Councilman, what do you think it is with seeing otherwise progressive politicians in the city and in the state today returning to this language that has been seen as racist and problematic even 20 year ago?
BILL HENRY: I’m trying to remember who the politician was who says that it’s a recession when your neighbor loses their job, but it’s a depression when you lose yours. We already kind of brought that thinking into the current era when we suddenly now have an opioid crisis. What an opioid crisis is is when the crisis leaves the black neighborhoods or the inner cities and moves out into the white neighborhoods of the suburbs. Then it’s a crisis.
I’m curious, and I should follow up with Jenny afterwards in terms of the numbers. I’m wondering how much of this wave of youth violence, of juvenile violence is really more of a we’re suddenly hyper aware of it, because the media is more willing to cover juvenile violence when it’s black kids attacking white kids or white adults than they are when it’s black kids attacking other black kids or black adults in the same neighborhoods. But now that there are a couple key stories of black kids coming into white neighborhoods and attacking them, then suddenly we have a wave of juvenile violence. I’m curious to see whether the numbers would actually bear that out.
BAYNARD WOODS: Right. It’s interesting. Boyd Rutherford, the lieutenant governor, just was on WBAL and asking the same thing that FOX 45 has been pushing, “Where does all the school funding go?”, and yet they don’t ask, “Where does the policing budget of $494 million, where is that going?”, and any other effort, the Civilian Cease Fire Effort, if there is a shooting during the ceasefire, people are very quick to say, “That doesn’t work,” and yet no one is quick to say, “Let’s disband the police department, because clearly we’re spending all of this money, and there’s still crime, and so therefore it doesn’t work.”
BILL HENRY: I have had a couple people write to me since the Op-Ed was published who I think want to be supportive, but they want to see data. They want to see studies showing that if we put more money into a recreation budget, that somewhere some city put more money into their recreation budget, and crime went down on a trackable on a trackable basis. I’m looking at it of the perspective of, well, we’ve been putting more money into the police department, and crime has not really gone down. Certainly, it’s not going down relative to the amount of money that we’re putting into it, so I’m thinking let’s change a variable and reevaluate, and maybe we’ll create some data right here in Baltimore, but continuing to do the same thing that we’ve been doing for the last generation and just digging ourselves deeper into the hole, I can’t imagine how anyone realistically thinks that is going to make things better.
JENNIFER EGAN: And I’m happy to talk a little bit about what evidence does exist in terms of investing in youth development and what kind of youth development programs have been shown to reduce recidivism and end juvenile delinquency, things that Baltimore currently doesn’t invest in. Recreation centers are the things that get [inaudible 00:10:47] a lot and talked about a lot, and that’s a great opportunity. Those tend to serve younger children and connect them to caring adults, but there are other things that Baltimore does not have that it is not currently investing in.
We don’t have a number of evidence based, wraparound community services. We don’t have any multisystemic therapy provider in Baltimore. We don’t have the kind of continuum of care that other jurisdictions in Baltimore, including Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, Prince George’s, Montgomery County, we don’t have the same access to services and evidence based programs that exist elsewhere. Those are mostly administered and paid for by the Department of Juvenile Services, but if there is a gap, Baltimore City could certainly be stepping up to fill that and to provide those needs for children, but they’re currently not doing that.
Instead, what Baltimore is doing is continuing to fund more money into a police department, a police department, which I would note is under a consent agree with the federal government and is proven to be fueling some of that violence. Sorry. The Gun Trace Taskforce, which is always a tongue twister for me, was arrested and indicted federally. We just had a giant criminal trial, where they were shown to be robbing people and engaging in the drug trade in Baltimore, so when we talk about what’s fueling violence, when you see the juvenile complaints are down, that the numbers of juveniles in the juvenile justice system is way down, that recidivism is down for the first time in a generation, and recidivism means kids who were arrested once and go on to be arrested again, is down, and yet on the other hand, you have a police force, many members of whom have engaged in a robbery ring that went unchecked for years, overtime fraud, and dealing of drugs, we should ask about who’s really fueling violence in this city.
I don’t think it’s kids. I think it’s an unchecked police force, poverty, lead paint, and lack of access to decent transportation, and lack of access to quality jobs and opportunities for young people.
BAYNARD WOODS: Yeah. Given all of that information about the police department, does it make sense to, Councilman, that the mayor is mandating that the heads of many city agencies meet with the police commissioner every morning to decide, I believe the words were, “Where the grass gets cut and which vacants get boarded up.” Is that an approach that makes any sense?
BILL HENRY: I will say, in regards to that, that I don’t think more coordination between city agencies is a bad thing. I think that that’s actually, that breaking down of silos, to some extent, is one of the things that will eventually take us to a real solution for dealing with public safety like the more comprehensive problem that it actually is. Why the mayor is doing that right now and how those meetings are actually running, I don’t know, but I’m not going to say that it’s a bad idea to have the agencies work together to try to make Baltimore better. I will say though that if nobody else is given additional resources to do their part of the larger fight to make Baltimore safer, if no one is given more resources, except the police department, then it’s hard to believe that that’s going to have any practical effect. Coordinating efforts, but only paying one of the players doesn’t seem like that’s a real commitment to a coordinated strategy.
I will also say though that my Op-Ed, neither this time nor years ago, was meant as an attack on the police. I know that there are bad police, and we try to catch them when we can, just like we try to catch any criminal, but the overwhelming percentage of the people in the police department I think have good intentions and are there for the right reasons. But each police commissioner that I’ve worked with over the years, when I’ve had conversations with them, they acknowledge the truth of the Op-Ed.
They acknowledge that they themselves are only one part of fighting crime, but it’s not in the nature of the head of a 2,000 plus person organization to voluntarily ask to have their budget reduced. You know, no police commissioner is going to stand up and say, “You should take $100 million away from my division, from my control, and divvy that up among various youth opportunities, housing, job training programs, the things that will go to actually reducing the number of criminals in Baltimore City that my force is supposed to be policing.” It’s not their job to say, “Give us less money.” It’s the mayor and City Council’s job and to some extent I think the City Council is there, but now it’s going to be incumbent upon the people of Baltimore City to make sure that the mayor knows this is what they really want.
I mean, people in City Hall, if they’re good at anything, they’re good at divining what they think will keep them in office, and so our public policies play out because people think this is what the citizens want. That was part of the point of my piece, is that we say, in public meetings and when we’re talking to people during the day, we say we want to do stuff for our kids, but then at night when we look outside and we see kids on the street corner, we call 911. That’s why we end up with 1.2 million calls for service, and that’s how the police department defends a half a billion dollar budget, and that’s why the mayor feels comfortable asking for more money for the police department, because I believe she believes that’s what people want. We need to, as citizen of Baltimore, make it clear that’s not what we want.
JENNIFER EGAN: Yeah. I will just say that if, for example, the City Council and the mayor were to divert $100 million of that police budget, we could meet 100% of the needs of kids who are at risk or currently have been found to be delinquent in Baltimore City. It would be a watershed for our children, but I don’t know that that’s where we are politically. Instead, where we are right now is that a major member of this administration is calling for children to be trued as adults and sent to adult prison, despite the fact that police are not experts in juvenile justice, despite the fact that police do not know the cost, both the fiscal cost, which would skyrocket for the state and for the city if that were to be the case, but also that all evidence shows that charging kids as adults and having them serve adult prison time increases rates of violence and increases recidivism.
When you hear people call to lock them up, know that that is a sure fire recipe to spend more money and to increase violence in the long term. If we want to decrease violence, we have to decrease the motive. We have to make sure that kids have adequate housing, that they have adequate access to job training, to those that have been pushed out of school have a real, concerted, trauma specific mentor who can bring them back in. $100 million would meet that need and then some for those found to be delinquent in Baltimore. We simply don’t have the city up in arms and calling for that shift in priorities, and that’s what we need.
BAYNARD WOODS: It’s one of our great failings as a city that after the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, that we said we were going to hold the police more accountable and that we were going to listen to the youth of the city, and we all promised we’re going to listen, and a couple years later the police haven’t really been held accountable, and we haven’t listened to the youth, and we wonder, “Why aren’t they listening back to us?”
BILL HENRY: At the first Council meeting after the uprising, I remember saying that my fear, my greatest fear, was not more riots. My greatest fear was that we, as a city, would collectively go, “Phew. We dodged a big one,” and go back to doing what we’d been doing, and two years later, we have not changed what we were doing nearly enough. We have to do that.
BAYNARD WOODS: Thank you both so much for coming on The Real News. I’m Baynard Woods. I’m here with Councilman Bill Henry from the Fourth District, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Cannot Police Its Way Out Of Its Problems, and Jenny Egan for the Public Defender’s Office, working with juveniles.
BILL HENRY: Thank you.
JENNIFER EGAN: Thanks for having us.
BAYNARD WOODS: For The Real News I’m Baynard Woods.