December, 16 2017
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Maryland Police Try to Keep Troubled Teens from Becoming Statistics
The officer shouts a warning to his colleague staking out the backyard of the Northeast Baltimore house: "He's a small, little dude. And he's fast."
Fists pound the front door. "Police!" It's 8:15 in the morning.
The door swings open, and two officers rush in, past the toddler in the entryway, around the silver-and-gold decorated Christmas tree, down the basement staircase. There, they find their man: a 13-year old boy on a mattress, wiping sleep from his eyes.
"Why are you home today?" asks Leo Zilka, as another officer slides plastic handcuffs on the boy. "You knew I was working. You knew I'd come find you."
Twice a week, Zilka, a state Juvenile Services officer, and a pair of city police officers search for teens who have broken the rules of their pretrial release, about two dozen at any given time. The 13-year-old had been ordered to live with his mother while awaiting trial on drug charges. But he didn't always stay home, triggering an arrest warrant.
The consequences of not making these arrests can be dire. The youths may commit acts of violence. Paradoxically, with these arrests the officers are trying to save the youths from themselves.
Just last month, two 17-year-olds were shot to death in Baltimore. Both had active arrest warrants because they'd violated their pretrial release conditions.
This year, 28 of the city's 278 homicide victims were age 17 or younger; that matches last year's total of 28. The number of teenage shooting victims this year is up, 88 at the end of last month, compared with 76 all of last year.
Juvenile criminal records are not public, but The Sun obtained and reviewed court documents of this year's teenage homicide victims. It appears that as many as 11 of them were slain after a juvenile judge decided they could live at home until their trials.
Programs Successful in Helping Troubled Teens
Zilka, who has an easy demeanor, is passionate about a job he's had for 12 years.
"I know a lot of these kids," he says. "I want to get them off the streets before something bad happens. They don't understand it."
There were 365 cases pending trial in city juvenile court at the end of last month. The Department of Juvenile Services supervises about 200 of those young defendants through Community Detention, its largest and most intensive pretrial release program.
The DJS officials call it one of their more successful programs. Of the 2,063 city participants in the fiscal year that ended June 30, about 15 percent violated rules by skipping court, running away or picking up a new criminal charge, according to agency statistics.
But the ultimate measure of any DJS program's success, says John Dixon, deputy secretary of operations, is the number of juvenile-related homicides and shootings.
Helping At-Risk Youth With Multiple Violations
In some cases, it's unclear whether the youths were obeying pretrial release conditions. But with Kendrick Bowman and Lawrence Jones, the 17-year-olds killed last month, there's no doubt they were in violation - twice over.
At 16, Lawrence Jones admitted to drug possession, theft and assault. This year, just after turning 17, he was charged again, with assault and drug dealing.
While he waited for trial in those cases, a judge allowed him on Sept. 5 to live at home with his mother, under Community Detention and with the added supervision of electronic home monitoring. A DJS officer visited him at home and school daily.
Within a week, Lawrence ran away, and a DJS officer requested an arrest warrant. His name went onto Zilka's list of kids to find.
Lawrence's mother told a juvenile judge Oct. 12 - the day of a hearing he skipped - that she'd seen him on a corner near their O'Donnell Heights home. The judge issued a second warrant.
On the afternoon of Nov. 2, Lawrence was shot to death two blocks from that corner. A 23-year-old has been charged with his murder.
Like Lawrence, Kendrick was ordered to stay at home until trial, on charges of stealing a car and running from police. He was placed in the Community Detention program in early October, and a judge kept him in it after a hearing Oct. 19. He was to live with his father, Keith Bowman, at his home near Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore.
Within hours of the court hearing, however, Kendrick had packed up some clothes and left, according to court documents.
Working to Save Young Teenagers Lives
The DJS officer who checked in the next day found him missing and sought an arrest warrant. Then Kendrick skipped court Nov. 9, triggering a second warrant.
But he eluded Zilka and the police. In the early morning hours of Nov. 15, someone burst into a house on McClean Boulevard and shot him in the head. A 33-year-old has been charged with his murder.
Conard Carnell, director of Community Detention, says DJS officers know they "literally have the power to save lives" by checking on youths frequently and immediately reporting when they go missing. In these two cases, those measures weren't enough, and Carnell says his staff was deeply troubled by the deaths.
Dixon and Carnell say the Community Detention program is adequately staffed and funded.
Problems Associated With Giving Troubled Teens Too Many Chances
"There seems to be massive push to keep kids from going into the justice center [jail]," Carnell says. "Along with that, there are inherent risks."
He says the effort to keep kids out of jail "sometimes clouds good judgment. If a kid has been in our program four times and has run away three of those times, do you really want to put him on it again?"
Records show that Lawrence had been supervised by DJS at least 10 times in the past two years. Kendrick was already on probation in another county when he was arrested in the city.
Keeping The Rest of Us Safe
Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon, the head of the city's juvenile judges, says public safety and the juvenile's well-being are considered when deciding on pretrial release. He says the preference is to keep the youth in the community instead of behind bars.
But Hargadon says assessing a juvenile's risk to himself, in the absence of specific threats, can be tricky. "By nature of the layout of the city, there are some dangerous areas, and those are sometimes the same areas where the children live."
The defendants whom judges have deemed the most dangerous are held at the city's Juvenile Justice Center, a jail with 144 beds.
Teens Making a Series of Poor Choices
The majority of pre-trial defendants are released to their parents on Community Detention - or with lower levels of oversight or no supervision at all.
"These are kids who have already made bad decisions," says Julie Drake, a city prosecutor and a longtime child advocate. "And if they make another bad decision, to run away or to stop coming to court, we need to do everything we can to get them off the streets right away."
Older arrest warrants are forwarded to the regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force, where a Baltimore police sergeant, three officers and a school police officer focus exclusively on juveniles on the run. Next month, police officers and DJS agents will begin monthly warrant initiatives in an effort to find even more kids.
Going from House to House to Track Wayward Teens Down
But for kids who violate Community Detention, Zilka is usually the first to try to track them down. Each Wednesday and Thursday morning, he and his police officer partners drive around the city, knocking on doors.
House after house, the scene is largely the same. "How are you doing, sweetie?" Zilka says to a mother or, more often, a grandmother who opens the door.
The woman usually says she doesn't know where the missing teenager is. Sometimes, she'll be angry - cussing and hissing and refusing to let the officers inside.
Sometimes, like the previous morning, they'll search eight or nine houses and come up empty.
At an Eager Street apartment building, an older woman answers the door, and Zilka and James Barnett step inside. A third officer is around back, in case anyone tries to sneak away.
The woman is smoking a cigarette. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is playing on a television with the volume turned way up. Zilka holds out a piece of paper with a teen's photo.
"That's my grandson," the woman says. Zilka asks if he is home; already, Barnett is poking his head inside open bedrooms.
No one else is home, and the grandmother tells Zilka the boy hangs around a church nearby. "I'm quite sure you know that's a drug area," she tells the officers.
She adds, her voice low and concerned: "These are not boys that he is with. These are men."
A quick drive by the church yields nothing, and it's on to the next missing teen.
Zilka and Barnett step inside a Formstone-covered rowhouse near Baltimore Cemetery on North Avenue, and a grandmother gestures to the second floor.
Upstairs, they find a shirtless boy asleep on twin beds pushed together, one covered in Scooby-Doo sheets. He rises, pulls on a shirt and puts his hands behind his back. Two toddlers in diapers focus on the officers, their eyes wide. Older children pay no mind to what's happening.
As the officers escort the boy outside, the grandmother is seething: "He knew this was coming. I tried to get him to turn himself in. I tried to get him to call his lawyer. Told him to stay in the house."
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