Michael Amon

Youth Crime On the Rise In Charles; Robbery, Violent Offenses Increasingly Part of Mix

Posted in The Washington Post by michaelamon on December 7, 2006

Jan. 3, 2004 — The Washington Post, p. C1
Michael Amon, Washington Post Staff Writer

When three young people robbed a Charles County post office at gunpoint, authorities quickly arrested two suspects in nearby woods. To catch the third, officers took a trip to the place where all three suspects were supposed to be on that Friday morning — Henry E. Lackey High School, just a few miles away.

Terrell King, 17, Marcus Mitchell, 17, and Brandon Dickerson, 18 — all seniors at Lackey High — were charged as adults with armed robbery, assault and using a handgun in the commission of a felony. Authorities say the youths pushed over an elderly female customer and stole $600 at gunpoint from the Bryans Road Post Office in the Nov. 5 robbery.

Charles County authorities say the post office robbery was part of a series of violent crimes last year carried out by young people with guns. Teenagers as young as 14 have been charged in Charles with attempted murder and robbery at rates much higher than in past years, police statistics show.

“They are getting a lot more brazen,” said Lt. Karl Hense, chief of the sheriff’s community policing squad. “The respect level is not so good.”

About 55 percent (82 of 149) of the people arrested in Charles on robbery charges from January to October were 17 or younger, according to sheriff’s office and Maryland Department of Juvenile Services records. At least 43 of those juveniles were charged in adult court and could face penalties of 20 years or more in prison.

By contrast, in 2002 about 28 percent (24 of 85) of suspects arrested in Charles on robbery charges were juveniles.

Capt. Joseph Montminy, executive assistant to Charles County Sheriff Frederick E. Davis, called the number of youth robberies “alarming.”

“I don’t think the kids understand the consequences of what they are doing,” Montminy said.

The number of youths processed in the juvenile court system in Charles increased 20 percent through October compared with the same period in 2002, according to state records. Juveniles charged with auto theft increased by 60 percent last year, according to state records.

In raw numbers, the youth crime numbers in Charles are still far lower than those in nearby jurisdictions such as Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and the District. But in Charles, authorities say, teenagers account for a larger percentage of violent crimes. For instance, in Montgomery, about 25 percent of those arrested for robbery in 2003 were younger than 18, according to police statistics.

As for why youth crimes have increased in Charles, law enforcement officials and social workers offer a number of reasons.

In part, officials said, the crimes are a sign of growing pains in Charles, where the population has increased by 25 percent, to 125,000, in the last 13 years. Once a community of watermen, tobacco farmers and local entrepreneurs, the county has transformed into the regional center of commerce in Southern Maryland and a growing suburb of Washington.

Most of the youth crimes have occurred in Waldorf, a densely populated community of about 60,000 where much of the area’s commercial and residential development is centered.

“There’s been a change in our population,” Sheriff Davis said. “We have people moving here from outside the county, and they are getting involved in crime.”

Rising poverty rates in Charles and broken families also play a role, social workers said.

“We’re somewhere between the old rural community and the urbanization of our county,” said Sandy O. Washington, director of Lifestyles Inc., a charity organization in Charles. “There’s been a big migration to this county, of the wealthy and also the socially and financially disadvantaged.”

According to the 2000 Census, 9 percent of Charles County households are single women with children, the third-highest percentage in the Washington region behind the District and Prince George’s. The number of Charles children living in poverty increased 45 percent from 1990 to 2000, the census found.

“Just about every kid that comes through the court now, you’re much more likely to see a kid with some serious issues: substance abuse, learning issues or a seriously dysfunctional family,” said Charles Circuit Court Judge Robert C. Nalley. “Kids [are] in much more serious trouble than in the past.”

Authorities said some of the crime is spillover from neighboring Prince George’s and the District, where juvenile crime also increased in 2003.

According to Davis, one of the most serious auto theft sprees in Charles was committed by three 14-year-olds, a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old — all boys from Washington. They were charged as juveniles in October with stealing 10 vehicles in Charles.

On Sunday, a 16-year-old youth from Southeast Washington was charged with robbing four Charles convenience stores in three weeks.

But local youths have been responsible for the most serious juvenile crimes this year, according to police reports.

In July, a 15-year-old pleaded guilty as an adult to first-degree assault for firing a shotgun at his neighbor in Indian Head. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Two 17-year-old Waldorf youths are awaiting trial as adults on charges of shooting an 18-year-old during a robbery attempt in Waldorf in June.

And a 16-year-old Waldorf youth, described by a judge as a drug dealer, pleaded guilty as an adult in August to attempted murder for shooting another 16-year-old in the head in November 2002 after a dispute over a stolen video game.

Police also have scrutinized crime in public schools. Students suspended from the county school system for bringing a weapon on campus increased by 95 percent in the last five years, from 43 in 1998-99 to 84 in 2002-03. Students suspended for attacks, threats and fights increased by 27 percent during the same period, while the system’s enrollment increased by only 11 percent, according to the Charles County Board of Education.

The sheriff’s office added another officer to the department’s squad that patrols the county’s high schools last year, bringing the number to five.

Many of the juveniles are repeat offenders, officials said. In an effort to keep them off the streets, prosecutors, police and juvenile services officials instituted a policy in recent months to make sure serious youth offenders are brought before a judge within a week. In the past, it often took two to three months for youths to reach trial, and they sometimes committed more crimes in the meantime, said Douglas Mohler, the Charles County supervisor for the state Department of Juvenile Services.

“We want to move quickly on these cases,” Mohler said. “What I hate to see is a period of time going by and then he goes and out commits the same crime.”

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