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Gun violence among juveniles is rising. How do you keep them out of the system?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yesterday, we brought you the stories of a group of young men that we met who are locked up in Maryland for serious crimes like robbery and assault.

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VINCENT SCHIRALDI: Good morning, everyone. I want to welcome you here to Maryland and to Baltimore.

MARTIN: Today we're going to hear from a key official with a long career in corrections and juvenile services.

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SCHIRALDI: A new era of somewhat vilifying young people is upon us. And so we also need to step up, all of us together. And I look forward to standing at the gate with all of you, as you have done in the past and as I have done in the past, to stop young people from being overincarcerated and to make sure that we treat those young people the way any of us would want our own children treated if they were in the same circumstances.

MARTIN: That's Vincent Schiraldi, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. He was speaking at the National Conference on Juvenile Justice held in Baltimore earlier this year. And he was talking about the fact that in some parts of the country, frightening episodes of juvenile crime are once again making headlines, pushing some in the public and public officials to demand get-tough policies. But nationwide, the number of youth arrests for violent crime like murder, robbery and aggravated assault have actually dropped over the past decade to reach a new low of 424,300 in 2020, half the number of arrests from five years earlier, according to federal statistics.

But most of these crimes involve robbery, which includes carjacking. In Maryland, state figures show a similar pattern, an overall drop in youth violence over the past decade but more and more youths getting involved in carjackings and gun violence since 2020. Schiraldi's career includes a stint as head of New York's notorious Rikers Island, which he tried to close. He sat down with me to talk about current challenges and solutions.

You've had a long career in this space. You've been an activist. You've been an academic. And you've served in a number of jurisdictions in a similar role. Is there something about the current moment that stands out?

SCHIRALDI: This moment feels a little like the superpredator era of the '90s, when there was an uptick in juvenile crime, and people started to reach for very punitive and, in my view, unsuccessful approaches that locked more kids up.

MARTIN: But if somebody sticks an AR-15 in your face, do you care - and steals your car, do you care that it's not as bad as the '90s? Or...

SCHIRALDI: Well, my main point was when we locked all those kids up in the '90s, it was bad public policy. And I don't want to do that bad public policy again, period, paragraph. By the way, it's not as bad as it was in the '90s, but it doesn't mean you don't interrupt gun violence. It just means that we need to kind of keep it in perspective and set sound public policy based on data and research, not hyperbole.

MARTIN: There's a kind of a quirk in Maryland where kids who are charged with or accused of - they might not even have been charged yet - are automatically sent to adult court.

SCHIRALDI: Right. First, they go straight to an adult booking facility, adult jail, spend a couple days there till they see a judge who decides on bail. Part of the bail decision would be, do you stay in an adult jail, or you go to this juvenile facility, right? So some of them are there two days, and they come back to us. And then their case just takes a really long time to be resolved, sometimes six months. Most of what happens at the end of that is a dismissal or return to juvenile court.

MARTIN: And that's wasted time...

SCHIRALDI: Totally dead time.

MARTIN: ...Because they could be getting services. They could be in school.

SCHIRALDI: Super frustrated. Many of those kids will have waited the six months. Sometimes, it's eight or nine months, by the way. Six months is just the average.

MARTIN: There is a perception in some quarters that youth are driving the increase in homicide and violence. That is not true.

SCHIRALDI: If you look at in Maryland, the teenage group is about the fourth-highest gun violence group. Young adults and older young adults - right? - 20 to 25, 25 to 30, 30 to 35 - all have higher gun violence rates than teenagers. It doesn't mean teenagers aren't high, by the way. Doesn't mean we're not higher than any other, you know, industrialized nation 'cause we have crazy gun violence rates. It just means those are not the highest.

MARTIN: You see teenagers carjacking other people. You see kids - gosh, these smash-and-grab robberies, which are not necessarily violent crimes, but they are very unsettling for people when they are present for these things. Do you have a theory of this? Like, what do you think's going on?

SCHIRALDI: We had a simultaneous, very substantial reduction in the number of kids who are locked up, 70% from 2000 to 2020. And we had about an 80-plus percent decline in arrests of juveniles during that period of time. So it was kind of a virtuous cycle - fewer kids getting arrested, fewer kids getting locked up and learning. Then we had this pandemic. Kids were disrupted from schools. Parents were losing their jobs. Mental health issues were sort of increasing for both the young people and their families and their neighborhoods. People started to arm themselves in those neighborhoods, mostly adults but sometimes kids. And when you have a lot of people with a lot of frustration, with a lot of guns in their pockets, you stop having fistfights, and you start having shootouts.

MARTIN: Where are kids that young getting guns like that?

SCHIRALDI: Mostly from the black market and from their parents' gun lockers or, you know, underwear drawers.

MARTIN: Are you worried about what you see, the current sort of state of things?

SCHIRALDI: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What is it that worries you?

SCHIRALDI: You know, I walk around with a folder full of kids who have been shot on my caseload since I got here. It's heartbreaking. And, you know, for my part, I got to not worry about the things I can't fix, like gun control and other things. And I got to focus on the kids that are most likely to come to harm or to harm somebody, which is pretty much the same factors, and try to steer them away from that.

MARTIN: What are your thoughts about how that can be accomplished?

SCHIRALDI: We are going to provide you with a suitcase of supports that's very real and very immediate to try to push you out of this really dangerous path we see you on. And so what's in that suitcase? Life coaches, that - many of whom have walked in the same shoes as the kids have walked, right? They're formerly incarcerated people that are going to see the kids immediately and every single day. Fiscal incentives to reward children when they achieve certain milestones, literally. Supported work, supported college attendance for the kids who have GEDs and want to get out of town and go someplace that they're engaged in deep learning. That's what a lot of middle-class kids do. And frankly, that's a pretty good way to spend your young adult years.

MARTIN: And I know it's a really unfair question, but I'm going to ask it - is, when do you think you will start to see results?

SCHIRALDI: I think we're seeing results already in some pockets around the country, like West Baltimore, a one-third decline. So we need to learn those lessons, and we need to do what they did there in lots of other places that have high rates of gun violence. When we do that, we'll see results.

MARTIN: That was Maryland Secretary of Juvenile Services Vincent Schiraldi. We spoke in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIEFER'S "SUPERHERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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