Why Maryland's Juvenile-Justice System is Set Up to Fail Baltimore's Poor Young Men
"Listen, I've talked with this boy. He has no education. He is poor. He is black. And you know what we have made those things mean in our country. He is young and not yet thoroughly experienced in the ways of life. He is unmarried and does not know the steadying influence of a woman's love, or what such a love can mean to him. I say I talked with him. Did I find ambition there? Yes. But it was blurred and hazy; with no notion of where it was to find an outlet. He knew he did not have a chance; he believed it. His ambition was chained, held back; a pool of stagnant water. I say I talked with him. Did he have the hope of a better life? Yes. But he kept it down, under rigid control." --Mr. Max, defending Bigger Thomas on murder charges in Richard Wright's novel Native SonAtop a paper-strewn desk in Joe Strong's otherwise spartan Park Heights office sits a stack of forms. Since the early 1990s, Strong has worked for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, one of the nation's most outspoken advocacy groups on juvenile-justice issues. His current assignment is heading up a program aimed at helping troubled young people stay out of incarceration and off the street; the forms are applications from potential participants. Each is filled out, the responses distinct yet eerily similar.
· Age: 15. African-American. Male. Legal guardian: mother. OK relationship with family. Failed 9th grade, currently in 9th grade. No problems in school, no expulsions or suspensions. Left Frederick Douglass High School because of arrest. No learning disabilities, no special ed. Hobbies/Goals: basketball, to be a mechanic. No drug or alcohol use. Sold drugs when 12. Father uses drugs and alcohol. Wants to attend school.
· Age: 16. African-American. Male. Legal guardian: father. Relationship with father up and down, good with rest of family. Family likes some friends, not all. Failed 9th grade, currently at Lake Clifton/Eastern High in 10th grade. Expelled from Northern for fighting. Hobbies/Goals: "chilling, have fun." Smokes weed. Sold drugs when 14.
· Age: 13. African-American. Male. Legal guardian: grandfather. Gets along well with family. Has two sisters who died at birth. Friends are acceptable to family. Failed 6th grade for poor attendance, currently in 7th at Highlandtown Middle School. Suspended for fighting and being disrespectful. Favorite subject: math. Hobbies/Goals: football, basketball, video games. Smokes weed. Family members use drugs and alcohol. Mother and father are incarcerated at this time. Great aunt refused contact. Grandfather refused contact. In a group home through the state Department of Social Services. No family support.
· Age: 13. African-American. Male. Legal guardian: grandfather. Gets along well with brother and mother. Lives with grandfather because mother moved to the east side. "All my friends are on the west side." Has a lot of friends, some get into trouble. Grandfather doesn't like any of them. In 7th grade. Difficulties with reading and spelling. In special ed for reading. Suspended for fighting. Hobbies/Goals: music and boxing. Smokes weed. Uncle used drugs. Sold cocaine when 11. Family uses drugs.
Most of the forms don't divulge what specific incidents landed these boys at Strong's door, but out of the clipped, cryptic scrawls on a few stapled-together pieces of paper telling stories emerge. Almost all of Strong's charges are black. Almost all hail from poor, fractured families and have grown up with drugs in their midst. All are good at some things, struggle with others. And all have things that they hold dear in life--family, hobbies, hopes for the future. Things that matter.
On an average day in 2000, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, 27 children between 10 and 17 were arrested in Baltimore City-- 9,809 arrests for that year. After dropping consistently through the '90s, the numbers are projected to have risen slightly last year, to about 10,200 arrests. Most of those arrested are remanded to the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). From mid-1999 to mid-2000, 6,906 city youths were committed to DJJ, the overwhelming majority of them African-American and male--something on the order of one-fourth to one-fifth of Baltimore's youngest black men.
The city, Maryland's fourth most populous jurisdiction, is by far its largest supplier of delinquents. For every three Maryland youth sent to detention or removed from his or her home last year, one hailed from Baltimore City. Systemwide, Baltimore City kids outnumber those from the rest of the state four to one, according to Strong, whose agency contracts with DJJ to handle intake at the state's largest juvenile-detention center, the Cheltenham Youth Facility in southern Prince George's County.
A day in Baltimore's juvenile court reveals just how many of those youths go on to the adult criminal system. On any given day last year, two or three kids coming up on 18th birthdays stood before Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge David Young with longer rap sheets than when they entered DJJ. Going on to prison is so common, so seemingly inevitable to youthful offenders, Young says, that many refer to their first juvenile incarceration as "kiddie life."
The numbers are hardly new, nor is the notion of the juvenile-justice system as a prep school for Baltimore City Jail. They're bandied about whenever overcrowding or abuse makes headlines, whenever a youngster on Baltimore's streets gets shot. They're useful for advocates when it comes to raising awareness and funding for this program or that. But reliance on numbers also dehumanizes the issue of juvenile justice. Numbers are tangible, malleable, emotionally safe. The pain of thousands of young souls is not.
"In the criminal-justice system, you're not [a person], you're either the plaintiff or defendant. And in the juvenile-justice system, you're not 'Little Tony,' you're the respondent," Young says. "Once you take that human element away, I can deal with you expeditiously. And I can deal with you how I see fit because you're no longer a person, you're a case to be disposed with."
Spurred by scandal after scandal in the last two years--from reports of widespread physical abuse at boot camps for youth offenders to overcrowding and mistreatment last year at Cheltenham and the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County--activists and elected officials are now fixated on DJJ, its problems, and pending reforms. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has made juvenile justice a pet issue during her tenure in Annapolis. Her expected run for governor and the opening of a new juvenile-detention center in downtown Baltimore this fall promise to keep the department's performance front and center during the current legislative session and upcoming campaign debates.
The stakes are high, especially for the thousands of Baltimore youth committed to the system each year, who command so much attention collectively and so little individually. More so than statistics, their stories tell cruel truths. They thrust into stark relief the shortcomings of the Department of Juvenile Justice and the challenges it faces.
The numbers and the headlines--the scores of kids crammed into small facilities, the complaints about overworked, underpaid, and untrained employees, the charges of physical abuse by staff--attest to a system that is dysfunctional, hugely overburdened, and only occasionally on the radar for state powerbrokers, who for decades allowed conditions to worsen. They poke holes in the credibility of both the Townsend-led department's philosophy of "restorative justice"--making delinquents pay for their bad behavior--and its vision that "Every child will become a self-sufficient productive adult." They tell of an institution struggling to perform the most basic aspects of its mission: to protect the public, to hold young offenders accountable, and to help them develop into responsible, productive adults.
The stories of the young people in the system tell a deeper, more disturbing tale. They tell of an institution all but guaranteed to fail. More importantly, they spell out the long-term price of that failure. Kids come into the system with a lot of problems DJJ doesn't--and in many cases can't--address. By virtue of being kids, they also come with inherent potential. But because DJJ's programs and services are so out of whack with what these kids need--especially those from Baltimore, who often come bearing huge psychological and socioeconomic baggage--that potential, that window for reformation, is often lost. Too often, the kids DJJ churns back out into the communities are bigger criminals than those that went in. And when they do straighten out and turn around, it is often at the hands of forces outside DJJ.
"These kids that everybody thinks are the worst kids, the DJJ kids, these are our kids," Strong says. "The stereotype is that these are kids that don't care. They're not good. They're little criminals who don't want to reform, their parents are not interested. The reality is, kids are kids and they make mistakes.
"Most kids want to do the right thing, but they don't know how to."
Brandon Cabell is a big guy, well over 6 feet tall. Soft-spoken and slouched in a chair with his eyes locked on the floor, he comes across as shy. But get him talking about his childhood in Sandtown-Winchester and the 21-year-old sits upright, revealing wide, lively eyes.
"I was a typical youth--running in alleys, playing in old houses, stuff like that. As I got older, I started seeing things--a lot of people out and about. Next thing I know, a drug gang got real heavy in my community.
"My mother used to sell drugs," he continues. "She was an addict. A lot of people were always coming in and out of our home. I always thought my mom was just having parties all the time. She couldn't teach me how to become a man. I had to learn that on my own. That's where the street life started coming in. At 14, the hard-core hanging in the street began.
"I didn't know we was poor because that's how we was living. A couple of times, I came home and found no food on the table; a couple of Christmases went by when there were no gifts under the trees. I took on the responsibility of hustling to support myself and my sister and brother. My mom was strung out all the time. She was chasing the substance; I was just chasing the money.
In the ninth grade, I dropped out of school after I failed. I didn't have the latest clothes, my hygiene wasn't up. But hustling--it's easy to get into, and hard to get away from. And I got into the game. I just felt like a gun was put to my head. I was in a situation I didn't really want to be in, but I had to do it in order to survive. . . . It was not only me, but there were a lot of other youth coming up in the same generation that wanted the same thing, and that just created something."
Cabell pauses. There's no shame or remorse about him, just matter-of-factness. "I was forced because of my circumstances," he shrugs. Then, for a moment, he gets wistful. "I remember when my mother was working, she was a nurse. Christmas I remember, birthdays. . . . She bought me the whole collection of He-Man [toys], and that was the most popular thing back then."
Like Cabell, 88 percent of Baltimore youths committed from July 1999 to June 2000 are African-American. Like Cabell, the vast majority of them come from poor, broken neighborhoods.
According to federal, state, and city data compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, the city neighborhoods with the most 10- to 17-year-olds also have the most households on welfare; the most households headed by single women; the most vacant and abandoned houses; the highest incidence of illegal dumping; and the dirtiest streets and alleys. These are the neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of child abuse and neglect. They span Madison/East End, Middle East, Greenmount East, Clifton, Patterson Park, and Berea on the east side, and southern Park Heights, Druid Heights, Upton, Greater Rosemont, and Sandtown on the west. Between one-fifth and one-third of all youth between 10 and 17 in these communities were arrested in 2000.
"The environment itself just creates [problems]. It's deeper than just saying a kid is a bad kid. In the environment that many of these kids come from, there's a sense of helplessness and despair," says Carroll Chambers, a colleague of Strong's in the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's Detention Diversion Advocacy Project. "An overwhelming factor is a lack of positive males in their lives. We have several kids as well whose mothers are HIV+. I've had kids just break down and cry during interviews because they're afraid they're going to lose their mothers. Along with the grief is also depression, because there's not really any outlet for young males that I work with to show emotion, so I think a lot of the feelings are suppressed [by] marijuana and alcohol. I wouldn't say they're addicts, but they're at risk of becoming an addict, of substance abuse."
Gary Unfried, principal at Harbor City High School in West Baltimore, says shattered communities are the biggest common denominator among the nearly 1,000 teens enrolled at his "alternative" school, where the student body consists of kids removed from regular neighborhood schools due to trouble with the law or severe personal and family problems.
"As many as two to three of our students each year are murdered. As many as 15 a year are shot or stabbed. And 25 to 50 percent are incarcerated," Unfried says. "We change some behaviors here to a large degree, but when they get back in the neighborhood they revert to the street. Maybe it's what they have to do to survive," he adds, in a voice of someone who has a hard time accepting the notion.
"If we have that many come to us overtly, what about how many that aren't? . . . A great percentage of 12- to 20-year-olds [in Baltimore City] are in life crises."
Unfried, in his 20th year at Harbor City and his 30th with the city school system, grew up in the Baltimore area, in public housing and on welfare. He knows what it is to face poverty day in and day out, but he never faced severe hunger or abuse. "What I went through was not significant compared to what these kids are going through," he says.
Forty percent to 60 percent of Harbor City students don't live with parents, and a good chunk bear the responsibility of raising siblings and earning the family money, Unfried says. Many are neglected, he says, and "an incredible number" are abused. Nearly 20 percent are parents themselves.
"One of the major problems is the parents. After we've met the parents, we understand perfectly well why the [kids are] acting out," Unfried says. "I've had parents come in [for teacher conferences] with baseball bats claiming they're going to get even with whoever set their kid up. I've had parents come in and pass out from drugs and [I] have to bring in the ambulance. A lot of kids, both their parents are dead--some from AIDS. When you've got that kind of baggage that you're carrying, you can be a perfectly good person, but are you going to worry about education or are you going to worry about survival?"
Around the same time as Brandon Cabell but on the other side of town, Marcus Dixon was heading down a similar path. He was 11, living in East Baltimore with his mother, a meat-department apprentice at supermarkets who frequently logged 80-hour weeks. His father had long been out of the picture, promising to come around every few months but showing up once a year at best. And as Dixon approached his teens, he spent a lot of time at home around North Avenue and Wolfe Street and grew increasingly aware of his surroundings.
"I started seeing a lot of people outside, then I started wondering why they weren't at work," says Dixon, now a lanky 18-year-old sporting creased jeans and buffed black loafers. "It was never really explained; I found out on my own. I started to focus my attention on them more. I started seeing what power they had. People were getting pushed around."
Around the same time, Dixon started using pot, which thrust him into the midst of those people with power.
"The first time I smoked a blunt I was 13, in eighth grade. I was 14 when I started getting into marijuana real heavy. And this basically was the start of me going heavy into drug activity," he says. Hanging out and smoking dope with friends, he got to know one buddy's brother. "When he came around, I noticed he was different. His pockets were always full of cash. Then one day we were in my buddy's basement, and he said, 'We can make some real money, man. I got connections for anything you want--guns, girls, parties.' I could get anything I want and stop asking my mother for things. I was the only one who stepped up and said, 'We can do this.'"
Suddenly, for the first time, Dixon was cool in the eyes of someone he revered.
"Oh yeah, that made me feel big. Like I'm the man, like I can take down 20 guys. All that did was pump my ego up," he says. "We formed a bond. We sold marijuana, coke. Then the money was coming up short and we started holding people up. The first time I did it I was a nervous wreck, like someone doing public speaking for the first time. But the first time I got that high, pointing a gun in someone's face--I could see the fear they had in their eyes--it felt good. And I liked it a lot. A whole lot. It led to other things, to carjacking--you need a car to pull bigger jobs--and we used a gun, a knife, or we used bare fists. I was pulling in a lot of money. Then I was working for someone else; $5,000 to $8,000 was going through my hands, and $500 would go to me."
For three years, Dixon's world revolved around a few blocks near Broadway. "I didn't leave the neighborhood," he says. If he left, he'd think, I will lose this amount of money.
For Cabell, it was need; for Dixon, it was attraction. For some, if not most, it is some combination of the two, and in between the hows and whys get blurred. The pull is so strong, the pressure so present, that falling into the hustling life is just a given.
Ronald Davis was 11 years old when his mother moved he and four of his sisters to East Baltimore from rural North Carolina. She wanted her family to try and start a new life, and they moved onto Nome Avenue near O'Donnell Heights in Southeast Baltimore. Like many other families in the area they were on welfare, but as the only kid in his new neighborhood wearing cutoffs and suspenders Davis didn't fit in. That was life, he reckoned. Within a couple of years, that notion changed.
Davis was 13 when he started selling drugs. He remembers it well. It was the beginning of summer.
"One day, an older guy gave me a package and asked me to hold it and watch it [while he] went to a concert, and he gave me 20 bucks," he says. The guy said something about Davis being young--the cops wouldn't bother him. "And the fiends, they all started coming. I'd been living there for a year or two; I already knew what they were coming for," he says. "Our parents weren't around, and my mother would never expect for me to touch drugs or anything. I never even saw crack before I came to Baltimore. This was coke, ready rock. They were paying me, I was selling it. I collected probably like $500 or so. The guy gave me another $40. I was, like, '$60! Damn!' . . . I was a kid, so $60 was a lot of money, more than my mother ever gave me."
Davis quickly realized he could make more, easily. And he quickly realized what that money could do.
"I wanted to stay fresh, you know, for the gear and everything," he says. He wanted to look like other kids, stop wearing the sneakers everybody could tell were $10 specials from Payless. "I wanted cars and everything. Since I didn't smoke any weed or drink or anything, I made a lot of money. We got cable in the house. My sisters, they were fresh, and I was staying fresh." It wasn't long before his mother was onto him, he says. "But I was putting the food on the table, you know? I was getting money."
For a while, things seemed good for Davis' family. But "when I got a gun," he says, "my whole damn life changed."
He was 14 or 15, he says, and "couldn't go to school" out of fear for his safety. "I got the gun to try to stop the guys who were trying to take the money from me. I was at Southeast Middle, in the seventh grade, and Miss Phills was the principal. I was a good kid, and we kind of like talked it out, and I gave her the gun when she asked me. But she expelled me. And I spent more time on the block."
At the time, a number of dealers were working the O'Donnell Heights area, and Davis' little piece of the business was a lucrative one. One afternoon, while he was upstairs in his bedroom, a few rivals busted into his house, sending his sisters running. It hit Davis what he'd gotten into. What hit him harder, though, was that it is easier to stay in than to break the cycle and get out.
"You never really look at the whole big picture; you're just happy that you're getting money," he says. "I stopped selling, went back to school. But I was used to doing what I wanted to do. I started smoking weed, drinking, and partying. I was 15 or 16. I dropped out of school again. We moved to Edmondson Avenue and Fremont [on the city's west side], where I tried to get a job. I was supposed to go to Douglass [High School]. But we were evicted, missed a rent, started living house to house. We couldn't keep up the payments on the storage house. It took a nice little minute, but we got back on our feet. We moved to South Baltimore, and I went back to school. I started selling drugs again--I was 17--and it just got popping. . . .
"My mother was kind of struggling. And I ain't got no ID or anything, so nobody's gonna hire me. And after I had all that money, I didn't want no McDonald's job. So I got to hustling again. The most I ever had at one time was $30,000, and I was still young. I gave my little sister $800 once and told her to go shopping."
Brandon Cabell was 16 when he was first arrested, for auto theft. Before he even made it to juvenile court to face that charge, he got caught firing a handgun and was sent straight into the adult system--common for Baltimore youth who commit serious offenses.
"I was at Central Booking, in the bullpen with adults," he recalls. "I spent 50 days there. I was charged as an adult, and they gave me 50 days and three years probation for the handgun charge. When I got home, DJJ had some probation for me--one year--for stealing the cars and everything. And I had to pay $25 a month in court charges for three years."
Marcus Dixon's first arrest came at 15. At the time, a buddy of his had just been killed. Dixon and his friends were hanging on the street, drinking and smoking. He spotted police approaching and bolted, stashing 60 vials of coke he had in his coat in some nearby weeds.
"The police found about 30, they locked me up for that. And I was released on my own recognizance," he says. "The second time was the day I went to court for the first charge. I got locked up that same night for distribution of cocaine. They let me go again. And I went to a rehab program for youth, two times a week for two hours."
Ronald Davis also got pulled in on drug charges, eight of them over two years.
"I was getting locked up, going to this little place for a few days, going to that little place there. I went to boot camp at Greenridge [in Western Maryland] for one year. I went to Hickey [a juvenile-detention facility in Baltimore County]. I went to Mount Clare House, a group home. I was at [Cheltenham] so many times it was pitiful."
David Miller reckons that if he had come across Ronnie Davis a few years back--before Davis got into trouble with the law--he would not have told him not to sell drugs.
"Unless we can offer him something, I'd just say, 'Don't kill or hurt anybody,'" says Miller, director of Youth Links, a program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Center for Prevention of Youth Violence that pairs at-risk youth with educational and employment opportunities, and the leader of the Baltimore-based Urban Leadership Institute, which consults for organizations across the country that operate programs for urban youth. "If I can't offer him the chance to make money, I'm wasting my time."
Miller, 34, grew up in middle-class Ashburton but spent most of his youth hanging out in Park Heights, one of Baltimore's poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, and he contends that the economic realities faced by Baltimore's poor, black young men today all but dictate the paths they follow. The lack of economic opportunities within the system makes drug dealing an obvious choice.
"You're dealing with some intense economic pressure," Miller says. "From an economic standpoint, it's not easy for a young man to just show up at a McDonald's or a Burger King for a job. You've got to factor in things like welfare reform, things like the Baltimore City drug court. It's created a new employment paradigm where there are all these other people competing for jobs." He recalls a 16-year-old he recently worked with who applied for the same job stacking boxes at a Rite Aid as his mother. The image of a mother and son going for the same job haunted him.
"Because of these intense economic issues, our young people are forced to work in a baseline survival mode. They're selling bootleg tapes, stolen clothes, sunglasses, illegal cigarettes." Given a choice between hustling and working, Miller says, "90 percent of them would rather work. But it's so hard for them to just get a taste.
"Eighty percent of men in Sandtown-Winchester never worked a legitimate job," he says. "Then think about the fact that many of these men have children, and the children go through the same cycle. The Empowerment Zones"--a federally funded program designed to increase economic activity in designated low-income sectors of Baltimore--"they may have gotten 300 people jobs, but the young people in communities, they just don't see the money.
"A majority of children are at Cheltenham because of drug trafficking, or maybe a fight or violent assault related to drugs. The fact is, there is no economic base in Baltimore City, and children who grow up predominantly in an urban community where there is no economic base will sell drugs. Many of them have no relationship with their father. The mother has been, or probably continues to be, on social services. . . .
"When I graduated high school in '86, we had a block party because most of us didn't think we'd live to be 18. Our communities were so saturated with crime, poverty, apathy; there was absolutely no leadership whatsoever. And three years later, when we turned 21, we had another party.
"It's human nature--you begin to think, Wow, everybody lives like this. It's as easy for an African-American boy in Baltimore to sell drugs as it is for a child in Cockeysville to go to college. It has become as common as it is for people to go to the corner store and buy a lottery ticket. It's become very, very normal because it's a means of survival."
The city's dysfunctional public-school system only reinforces these limits, says Miller, a former teacher. Before he began consulting, he taught at Calverton Middle School in West Baltimore, one of the system's worst-performing schools and among its most unruly. School is where kids spend the most time, and for many, especially those with troubled home lives, it is where they seek out positive adult role models, Miller says. When it comes to lifting up and redirecting at-risk kids, however, Baltimore schools don't deliver, he says, despite ongoing reforms spurred in the late 1990s by several lawsuits that charged the system with chronic mismanagement and underfunding.
"The Baltimore City school system is a direct pipeline to Cheltenham, which is a direct pipeline to the Baltimore City Detention Center," Miller says. "The school system allows a certain amount of criminal behavior and apathy to exist. It's utter chaos. Mayhem. What you begin to see in these boys and girls is that most drop out in the ninth grade. When they drop out, they go to the street corner, start selling, and end up in prison. The school system doesn't teach concrete values, it doesn't teach respect."
According to the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which tracks the welfare of Maryland children on a yearly basis, the high school completion rate for the city has hovered around 40 percent for the last decade. To Miller, more than half of the system's children dropping out means more than half the city's youth are on a path toward destruction.
"There is such a connection between juvenile delinquency and the drop-out rate in schools," the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice's Joe Strong says. Kids don't leave school because they're not smart or not interested, he says. When he asks kids--troubled kids--their favorite subject, almost all choose math and science, he says. So what happens? He reaches for one of the forms on his desk, flips to the last page, and points to the line that describes one child's school experience. "Suspended twice," it reads. "Ungovernable."
How do they become "ungovernable"? Why do they act out, drop out, or get kicked out? Like Ronald Davis, expelled for taking what he considered a necessary weapon to class, they don't feel safe going to school. Many don't feel challenged. "There are a lot of really smart kids who get in trouble because they're bored stiff at the [neighborhood] schools," Gary Unfried says. Many feel their teachers are ill equipped or simply don't care. "A lot of these teachers are trained to teach Shirley Temple," Miller says. "They should be preparing to teach Lil' Kims."
"Some of these kids have been programmed since they were little kids to do things you and I would find unacceptable," Unfried says. "They can't stop it unless you do some big mind-bending, and schools don't do that."
Sandtown-Winchester, where Brandon Cabell grew up, is part of the federal Empowerment Zone initiative. For years, social activists and policy wonks have been arguing whether the strategy works. To Cabell, the answer couldn't be clearer: It doesn't.
"Some of my young brothers out there feel trapped. They feel like they're not going to make it. [Hustling is] all they got." All the things on television that people with nice lives have, they don't have, he says, and "that is a big mental beat-down."
"If they stay in school, the farthest they've been is to D.C., and they've been to the zoo up there," Cabell says, motioning north toward Druid Hill Park. "They don't have anything to create a picture for them" of a better life. "Hope is gone in the community. That's the main problem that we face."
It's the absence of hope that dashes expectations--and steers Baltimore's young men into the juvenile-justice system in droves. Ronald Davis had plenty of hopes while he hustled, and he promised himself that one day, when he reached a certain age when he could work a legitimate job, he'd quit. But somewhere along the way, these kids' hopes are abandoned or lost--ignored by parents, siblings, and teachers with problems of their own, buried under the lure of quick money. Once Marcus Dixon's family discovered his street ways, he says, all they ever told him was, "You're going to wind up dead" or "You're going to wind up in jail."
"Some are afraid to dream, and some dream of being the big drug dealer. But the vast majority have hopes, they just don't know how to get to them," Unfried says. "Even if they live with their parents, they're promised much and given little. So they're afraid to hope. There's an implied promise for children when they're in a family that they're supposed to be taken care of. They see that on TV." When that doesn't happen, he says, it "undermines your whole sense of stability and security. And it takes a lot to overcome that."
"You've got young black men who are used to hearing, 'You ain't gonna be shit,'" Cabell says. "You hear it from your mother, you hear it from your girlfriend. I heard it from my uncle, my mother, my sister, my brother. I figured, I'm already judged like that, so the hell with it, I'm gonna run with it. When people constantly get called something, it does take effect. People say, 'Words never hurt you.' That's bullshit."
Unfried sees this kind of thinking every day. Many of his students are afraid to succeed. "If somebody is told they're stupid, it takes 12 positive reinforcements to undo that," he says. "They have a feeling that they can't do [something]. So if they are able to achieve it, they don't trust it, they think somebody's messing with them, they think it's a fluke. They don't trust success, they think it's fleeting."
Add to these already low expectations the meager expectations of society, and the cycle of defeatism becomes even more entrenched, Judge David Young says.
"People see the way kids dress and wear their hair and think, Oh, they're criminal bad actors. They listen to their music and think, Oh, they're angry," Young says. "The perception is that in Baltimore City there are roving bands of black teenage males who wear their pants down, who swagger, who curse, who do drugs, who carry guns. The reality is, there are black kids and white kids who are trying to find their way and use clothing and rap music to express their identity. And one thing you can say about teenagers today: They are loud, because they want to be heard. They are angry, because nobody listens to them. This generation is in pain. . . .
"Every kid in Baltimore City will be impacted by violent crime--they will either lose a loved one to violence, know a victim of violence, or be victims themselves," Young continues. "These kids are now hyper-vigilant: 'I have to launch the pre-emptive strike.' That's symbolic of people who live in the nuclear age: 'I'm not going to survive a nuclear attack.'"
"You are classically conditioned if you live in urban America to go negative," David Miller says. "I think a lot of times people don't understand the conditions these children have to go through. Because they are classically conditioned to believe that they are inferior, they're classically conditioned to believe they can't escape."
Most don't escape. Brandon Cabell, Marcus Dixon, and Ronald Davis are exceptions. More than that, they're three classically conditioned poor, young African-American men who are busy proving that escaping isn't only possible, but within the reach of delinquents most would consider the hardest-core.
Davis says his stint at Greenridge helped prompt him to start "looking at life differently." He left DJJ custody on on Jan. 22, 1999, bent on turning his life around.
"I knew I was on my way to going to jail," he says. "I started evaluating myself and realized a lot of stuff I didn't like."
Davis' probation officer moonlighted as the pastor of a small upstart church, the Fountain of Faith, which operates out of a hotel on Route 40 in Catonsville. He earned Davis' respect, and his influence was huge. Today, Davis says, "I'm buster free. And I owe it all to God."
In early 2001, Davis landed a spot in a one-year residential/work program run by the Sylvan Beach Foundation that targets young, at-risk Baltimore men. For nine months, Davis has been toiling in the foundation's ice cream works and café in Mount Vernon, in exchange for a small stipend and free room and board. He's also joined a rap group; meanwhile, he is awaiting the results of his high school equivalency exam, and has his sights set on community college or the Navy.
"I believe there's a heaven and a hell. I don't want to go to hell, and that's the truth," Davis says. "Besides, I gotta make my mother proud. I made her cry enough."
Marcus Dixon also went straight after getting religion. The corrective programs prescribed for him by DJJ were a poor fit and did nothing for him, he says. "I got sent to this one youth program, and I'm the only guy who had a felony charge," he says. "And we're all sitting there holding hands. They didn't ask me no questions at all. They didn't ask me, 'What did I like?' They just said, 'We're going to throw him in this program.'"
Eventually, Dixon's lifestyle wore him down, and he began pursuing change on his own. "I got tired of waking up every day at 8 and rounding up the junkies and drug addicts"--the hustlers who worked for him. "I got tired of looking at their faces, scabs, sores. I got tired of all that. I got tired of coming home and looking at my mother, looking at the pain in her face. Things weren't the same, she didn't look the same."
Dixon had always told himself he would never work at a minimum-wage job, especially after pulling down hundreds of dollars a day. But he took the first step toward turning his life around by getting a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. (He says he kept his head down at work so the drug dealers and users he knew wouldn't see.) He started going to church to "get in good with the family" of a girl he liked. He was skeptical at first but found himself drawn to the words of a particular youth pastor, and he discovered the answer to a question that had nagged him for a long time: "Is there more to life than going to work, and the government taking my money for taxes?" He decided there was. He was baptized at the Greater Bethlehem Temple in Randallstown, and he hasn't missed church on Sunday since.
"People who say, 'God, who's that? He ain't nothing'--that's bullshit," Dixon says. "I owe everything to God, every single thing, every day."
Around the same time, Dixon hooked up with Goodwill Services, through which he obtained his high school equivalency and attended a job fair that led to his current position selling insurance for Primerica Financial Services. Through Goodwill, he also heard about the Community Mediation Program, a dispute-resolution agency Johns Hopkins University runs out of its Safe & Smart Center in Waverly. It is where he met Cabell, who is now a friend and prospective business partner.
Like Dixon, Cabell largely directed his own about-face. His stint in the adult jail shook him up, and he came out knowing he never wanted to go back. But it took him a while to find his way. A friend who worked at McCafferty's restaurant in Mount Washington helped him land a dishwashing job there that he kept for a year. Then he bumped around for a while--working at Burger King, Hopkins hospital, and Baltimore-Washington International Airport--before seeing an ad for Youth Opportunities, a federal- and city-funded program for out-of-school youth in West Baltimore. Cabell called the phone number and won a slot in the program. Soon after, a speaker at Youth Opportunities' Lafayette Square center told Cabell about the Community Mediation Program. Cabell was the only kid who showed for the lecture, and the two got to talking.
"He said to me, 'If I give you a challenge, do you think you can accept it? If I give you a number, will you promise to call it and follow through no matter what?'" Cabell recalls. "I said, 'Yeah.' I became a youth volunteer coordinator, and look; two years later I'm still with them--[making] $25,000 a year."
Cabell also obtained his high school degree, and in his spare time he boxes with West Baltimore's Umar Boxing Club. He enjoys his job, and is helping train Dixon to become a volunteer mediator. But where both young men see their futures leading is still just an idea on paper.
They know their escape from the street and the legal system sets them apart from their peers; both say that most of the young men they grew up with are still out there hustling, still in and out of jail. Sixty percent of Maryland juvenile offenders are re-arrested within a year of entering the system, 80 percent within three years, according to a 2000 report in Criminal Justice magazine. But because they were able to break the cycle, they think they might be able to help others do the same.
"The only reason I was able to get to the peak where I am right now is because people stuck with me," Cabell says. "That made a hell of a lot of difference. I don't have no skills whatsoever, and now I'm mediating conflicts. That takes time, and I'm still learning the do's and don'ts. But it's all because they gave me a chance."
He and Dixon want to give that same chance to others via a company called ACT (All Communities Together), for which they'll draw on their experiences and consult for institutions and organizations with programs for low-income, inner-city youth.
"You cannot talk to no one if you've never been there," Dixon says. "The old bald white men in the judicial system, they never lived in a neighborhood where there's poverty. They've never been in a neighborhood that's predominantly black."
"Two young brothers such as ourselves," Cabell adds, "we aren't too far from this shit."
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