Teen Crime Rate Down

Teens are committing half as many violent crimes as they were a decade ago, according to the Justice Department. Experts cite a variety of reasons for the drop, including demographics, the changing economy and new approaches by police.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And from the Justice Department comes this word: teen crime is dropping. A study indicates teen-agers are committing half as many violent crimes as they were a decade ago. People involved in preventing teen crime all agree that things have gotten a lot better, but they don't agree on why. To hear some of the reasons people have to offer, NPR's Laura Sullivan went to Baltimore. It used to be listed as one of the nation's most violent cities for teen-agers.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

To understand how much less teen violence there is in Baltimore, Maryland, you have to understand what it was like 10 years ago. In the 1990s, more than a hundred teens were killed each year. More than that went to prison for murder and assault. Most were in what's called the game, drug dealing. One of them was Riyad Johnson. His friends called him Stick.

Mr. RIYAD JOHNSON: Oh, I had over $500,000 cash in my house. I was 17 years old. I had a Crown Victoria, I had a Benz 600 V-12, '93. I had two motorcycles. And I had a hundred thousand dollars' worth of drugs.

SULLIVAN: Johnson was a drug dealer. In the 1990s he carried guns. He fought turf battles. He watched his friends die or go to prison.

Mr. JOHNSON: All of them, all of them. I'm the only one--I'm the only one. Everybody else dead and in jail--like, I say 15 of them dead. Seven of them doing life sentences, never see the streets again.

SULLIVAN: His life then was the very picture of teen crime. Today he's trying to prevent it.

(Soundbite of woodworking shop)

SULLIVAN: Riyad Johnson teaches woodworking for a program called Fresh Start. It's the same program he went to six years ago and it changed his life. It operates out of an old boathouse on the water. Sawdust is everywhere. On this day he's showing an 18-year-old from his old neighborhood how to cut wood so they can make a chair.

(Soundbite of woodworking shop)

Mr. JOHNSON: Don't worry about it. Just keep your pencil up, always keep your pencil straight up so it won't happen again. Yeah, just like that. Perfect.

SULLIVAN: Stephanie Region runs Fresh Start. She believes programs like this have cut teen violence, but she thinks there may be other reasons, too.

Ms. STEPHANIE REGION (Director, Fresh Start): These that are here are more interested in getting ahead, not just existing. Maybe it's a whole shift in thought where they--used to be students didn't see themselves living past the age of 18.

SULLIVAN: It seems like everybody has a theory behind the drop in teen crime. People who study crime say it's economics, demographics, better policing, harsher sentencing, a more stable drug market. Some think faith-based programs lowered the crime rate. Others credit federal grants and public service announcements. One theory says there are simply fewer teens. That's not even true. Riyad Johnson's path over the past 10 years from drug dealing to woodworking follows the national trend. He says he quit dealing because he was exhausted.

Mr. JOHNSON: I just--I couldn't handle it. It's frustrating, you know. You have to worry about my own homeboys that I grew up with putting hits out on me, a hit man, somebody putting money over your head to kill you, you know, all because they can't make no money. People telling on me. People calling the police on me saying that I'm shooting people and stuff like that, people I grew up with my whole life.

SULLIVAN: Back in 1995 there were 87 juveniles charged with murder in Baltimore. Last year there were 19. Police officials say that's partly because they've cracked down on curfews.

(Soundbite of police call)

Unidentified Dispatcher: Baker 11.

Officer VICTOR COMEGNA (Baltimore, Maryland): We just crossed the border into the northeast. 25th Street is the border. This is actually now the northeast district.

SULLIVAN: Victor Comegna is driving through a run-down neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, past chain-link fences and boarded-up buildings. Comegna's a police officer, and he's looking for the culprits who've been robbing taxi drivers. His gut tells him they're teen-agers.

Officer COMEGNA: Just a general feeling I get out of it and a general description of what the kids are wearing--long white T-shirts, baggy jeans, do-rag on the head. I don't see too many adults that run around here in that kind of garb.

SULLIVAN: Comegna says the new curfew policy gives him an edge. He can pick up teens he sees on the street late at night or during school hours and he can detain them downtown or question them about a crime like taxi driver robberies.

Officer COMEGNA: Five juveniles hanging out at a sub shop at 9:30 in the morning before they go to school, it's my responsibility and it's my supervisor's responsibility to make sure I take care of that.

SULLIVAN: But for people who work with at-risk teens, none of the policing strategies, job training programs or drug awareness makes any difference if there isn't one person who cares specifically for each kid.

Mr. KERRY OWINGS (Westside Youth Opportunity Center Director): Just one thing and that's a caring adult.

SULLIVAN: Kerry Owings has been the director of the Westside Youth Opportunity Center since 2002. The center is in an old brick building on a block of burnt-out row houses. The neighborhood is filled with drug addicts. Most of the teens here have one or no parents. Some live couch to couch; most don't go to school. Owings hands out clothes and food if a teen-ager's caregiver gets arrested or doesn't come home.

Mr. OWINGS: What's up, man? How you doing?

Unidentified Teen: Not bad.

Mr. OWINGS: Good.

SULLIVAN: Owings walks down a dark cement hallway lit by fluorescent bulbs. He swings a huge pile of keys dangling from a rope. He seems to know every teen-ager's name and story.

Mr. OWINGS: Hey, Tyrone. Who's the little one?

SULLIVAN: Owings has been working with teens for 20 years. He says what they really need is individual attention and rules. His are painted on the wall.

Mr. OWINGS: No guns. No knives. No profanity. All raps must be non-violent, nothing of a sexual nature. No gang signs and no threats.

SULLIVAN: This kind of approach is time-consuming and complex. Volunteers are hard to find, donations are scarce and, at some point, only so many teens can be looked after. Owings says many kids who come to the center will still wind up in prison, but some of them find a different life.

Mr. ROBERT GREEN(ph) (Center Attendee): I come here maybe every day, every day. I just try to stay here where I know it's positive forces that--positive people around me. So I just try to stay around this environment.

SULLIVAN: Twenty-one-year-old Robert Green is sitting in the hallway on an old yellow coach. Green started coming here when he was 16. He had just been arrested in a drug raid. He hoped the center would keep him out of jail. It was just a ploy to get him back to dealing drugs.

Mr. GREEN: I had no problem with shooting at nobody. I seen a lot of my friends die. Like, I used to sell the drugs. I used to--like, I had no problem with beefing or shooting at nobody or getting shot at. I had no problems like that.

SULLIVAN: But after a few months he became close to director Owings. He's come almost every day since then. He hasn't been in trouble in years. Now he's about to take the last section of the GED.

Mr. GREEN: The focus that people put into me, I think ain't no point in me going back out there and getting in trouble while I got people right here that care for me. So...

SULLIVAN: That message is something Owings wants all the teens in this center to hear and it's something his staff supports as well.

(Soundbite of workout room)

Mr. ROLLIN STOKES(ph) (Workout Coach): Let's go. Let's go--two, three, four, five...

SULLIVAN: Down in the basement a dozen young guys are waiting for their turn on old secondhand workout equipment. Rollin Stokes grew up in Baltimore, and he comes here twice a week to be the workout coach.

(Soundbite of workout room)

Mr. STOKES: Twelve. ...(Unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: Standing in the middle of the room, Stokes turns away from the guys so they can't hear him talking. He says from his perspective, helping troubled teens is simple.

Mr. STOKES: They need someone they can count on, someone that's not going to let them down. That means the world to them. I'll be here no matter what, no matter what. However it takes that I gotta get here, I get here.

SULLIVAN: So far this year, teen crime in Baltimore is continuing to fall. There have been even fewer teens charged with murder and fewer teen victims of murder than last year. If that trend continues here and throughout the country, it may not matter which theory is working, just that something is. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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