Nearly one-quarter of youths placed in Maryland juvenile services facilities since last July have been charged with a handgun violation. That’s a 38% increase in just the first 10 months of this budget year, reports the Baltimore Banner. The statistic underlines gun violence involving youths, both as victims and perpetrators, and the availability of illegal guns in Baltimore and around the U.S. High school-aged victims 13- to 18 years old comprised roughly 20% of all victims. The crisis looms as Gov. Wes Moore has made public safety his top priority. Moore picked Vincent Schiraldi, a 40-year veteran criminal justice reformer, to lead his juvenile services department, one of many depleted state agencies battling severe staffing shortages. Schiraldi embraces evidence-informed approaches to juvenile rehabilitation, such as teaching children to think of consequences before acting and buffering youth with community support to keep them from committing more crimes. He wants to shut youth prisons in favor of small, home-like settings based in children’s communities.
Since taking charge, Schiraldi has filled vacant jobs, toured detention facilities, attended an outdoor learning program with youths, and met with community partners. One of the burdens is severing children with previous gun charges who are most at risk to become victims themselves from an unrelenting cycle of violence that caused them to pick up guns in the first place. The youths had owned guns for years before their first encounters with the juvenile system. All bought guns because they felt they needed protection. Carrying a gun or a prior history of gun violence is linked to future gun violence, according to research compiled by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. Gun ownership significantly increases the risk of violent victimization. And the majority of youth homicide victims who died by gunshot between 2016-2020 had previously been charged in the juvenile system. ”Our kids, who are usually looked at as the bad guys, are far more likely to be victimized than to actually victimize somebody else,” Schiraldi said. Schiraldi’s juvenile justice reforms are predicated on a growing body of research that says teen brains aren’t fully developed until around age 25. He wants to continue using cognitive behavioral therapies to teach naturally impulsive youth to think before they make another poor choice. Teens are also “more volatile in emotionally charged settings,” and throwing easily accessible guns into this mix is “deadly,” he said.