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Maryland gets tough on youth crime while trying to help young offenders thrive

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country, lawmakers are worried about crimes committed by juveniles. Some have spiked in recent years. Despite recent improvements, studies show that almost 70% of juveniles who've been in state custody end up getting arrested again within three years. So some states like Maryland are getting tougher on youth crime while making investments in new programs that focus on helping kids make a new start.

As Brandon Wilson remembers it, he didn't have a lot of positive influences when he was growing up in West Baltimore. Or maybe it was more that the negative influences had more pull.

BRANDON WILSON: Just - you know, just trying to be down, thinking that, you know, the streets were better than my household. Then you just start getting into other things.

MARTIN: Those other things eventually led to TTG, Trained to Go, a gang associated with drug trafficking and implicated in eight murders. Wilson's involvement led to more than 15 years in prison for attempted murder.

WILSON: It was life-changing, but it saved my life. Being in that underworld, you know, there's only two ways - prison and death. They are the only two options. So I was blessed to go to prison and my life was spared.

MARTIN: Pastor Ebony Harvin is also from Baltimore, but she has a very different story. Her son was murdered.

EBONY HARVIN: August 15, 2018. I remember 8:41 exactly when I received the phone call. And he passed at 9:02. Yes, so I remember everything. It's like a tape recorder when you lose a loved one that you just keep hitting the rewind button and the play.

MARTIN: You might think these two people on different sides of the gun violence crisis would have nothing in common. But in fact, they're working together in a new program in Maryland called Thrive Academy. The goal is nothing less than keeping kids alive and, as the name implies, thriving. The focus is kids who are, for a variety of reasons, deemed most at risk of gun violence as perpetrator or victim. Lisa Garry is Deputy Secretary for Community Services in Maryland. She says the idea comes from a model that's been successful with adults. The key piece is intensive mentorship, and those mentors have a very specific profile.

LISA GARRY: We rely heavily on credible messengers to work directly with people at the greatest risk of either shooting or being shot.

MARTIN: Credible messengers. That means people like Brandon Wilson, who've been gun offenders themselves, and Ebony Harvin, who's been victimized.

GARRY: The whole point of Thrive Academy is want of redemption 'cause if we say, oh, that's crazy, they shouldn't work with kids, then you start out with the notion that there is no such thing as rehabilitation, there's no redemptive quality to people's lives. And that's not true because when you learn how not to do something and you've learned the consequences and the hard lessons of doing something that is wrong, you are the best messenger to help someone else through that.

MARTIN: However it may look to people outside of the program, Garry says they've seen that participants are just more likely to listen to people who they think understand their world because they've lived it. In recent years, Baltimore has consistently ranked among the American cities with the highest rates of gun violence despite recent decreases in crime. But people across the state are fed up, especially with crimes committed by juveniles, especially involving guns.

Last year, for example, a 4 of July celebration in Baltimore turned into one of the worst mass shootings in Maryland's history. Two people were killed and 28 wounded. Five teenagers were arrested in connection with the shooting. And recently, two teenagers aged 14 and 16 were arrested in connection with a shooting at a park in a Maryland suburb just outside of Washington, D.C. Lawmakers say their constituents are angry and frightened.

WILL SMITH: This year's efforts were an acknowledgment that there are some things that we need to improve upon and change. And what we did is we expanded delinquency jurisdiction for certain crimes for 12-, 11- and 10-year-olds.

MARTIN: That's Maryland state Senator Will Smith. He represents one of the state's most affluent counties. But even there, he said, gun violence was the No. 1 issue his constituents complained about. Just two years ago, Smith pushed juvenile justice reforms that lessened probation time and prevented young offenders from being prosecuted. But during the most recent legislative session, the same legislature walked back some of those reforms. But Smith says, Maryland is taking a dual approach, not only toughening accountability, but also investing $24 million into programs like Thrive Academy. And officials say that preliminary results are promising. Juvenile homicides are already down this year.

We wanted to know more about how it works. So we headed to the Langston Hughes Community Center in Baltimore City, where kids meet weekly with their mentors. That's where we met the two we told you about earlier, Brandon Wilson and Ebony Harvin, who was already an ordained minister when she started working with Thrive.

What is this program and how is it different from others?

HARVIN: One thing - and I'm not going to say that all programs don't work, but the team that we have, truly thank God for. A lot of the team members experience something so we can relate to some of the young people. I lost one of my sons due to violence, so we can relate to certain things. We make sure that we attach each life coach to each client.

MARTIN: A lot of people have heard about, like, violence interrupters, right? And the image that people have is that, like - it's almost like you're detectives and you find out something's about to happen, and you kind of go and try to talk people out of it and then go on to the next thing. This is different.

HARVIN: Yes. So with our team, we have a Stop The Beef team as well. So we have different resources that's connected to our team that we can provide the youth with. Like Brandon, he operates the Stop The Beef team. He's a life coach as well. But when we have any type of situation that's going on with our young people and we find out, we'll go ahead and let them connect directly with Brandon.

MARTIN: Brandon, pick up the thread here if you would. Tell me about - how does it work?

WILSON: Yeah. With the Stop the Beef Hotline, we don't involve no police. We get the information, and we begin just trying to connect the dots, if we can, to see if we can stop what's going on. Just an example. We put out a beef. Someone had a hit on them for $750. And someone called and got in contact with me, then I got in contact with the individual and learned what happened. And we was able to intervene in that, you know?

MARTIN: How?

WILSON: 'Cause we paid the money.

MARTIN: Really? Wow.

WILSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're not playing.

WILSON: Yeah. We paid the money.

MARTIN: Techniques like that might sound controversial. But for the most part, what mentors do is actually pretty simple - time-consuming, but simple. They do what in other circumstances a father, uncle or coach might do by being constantly available, being firm, keeping kids busy and focused - all that with the goal of keeping kids from hurting someone with a gun or getting hurt themselves.

We met the guardian of one teen in the program. She asked us to call her Grandma Blue. We're not using her full name or her grandson's because he's only 15 and under Maryland rules, his privacy must be protected. She says he's been in and out of various programs for scrapes with the law. This time, he got in trouble for stealing cars.

Have you ever asked him like, why are you taking cars or like, why are you doing this? What does he say?

GRANDMA BLUE: He wasn't saying too much, but at that time, a lot of the friends that he had - they all locked up for other crimes now. Yes.

MARTIN: It must be terrifying for you. I mean...

GRANDMA BLUE: 'Cause I don't want to lose him to the streets.

MARTIN: When did you start to notice that something was going wrong, like, that this was not going in a good direction?

GRANDMA BLUE: He have a lot of pain in him. You know, because his - both of his parents are deceased.

MARTIN: Grandma Blue told us her grandson lost both of his parents to gun violence and recently, a 13-year-old cousin who was just trying to get away from another shooting.

GRANDMA BLUE: Yes, he had a lot of pain in him, and like Ms. Ebony said, she - he don't really talk to people, but he had been putting a lot into her - his personal life 'cause all the other programs he'd be like, I'm not talking to them. I'm not telling them my business. But it's something about Ms. Ebony that he'd call her, talk, you know, all that, you know, so it's a good program, like I said.

MARTIN: What do you think is the appeal for him? Why do you think he's interested in this when he wasn't interested in other things?

GRANDMA BLUE: Like I said, he's starting to speak out with Ms. Ebony. He has somebody that he can count on, you know, who he can talk to and stuff because he's not really a good talker 'cause he have so much pain in him. You know, he had lost so many people. So with the help of the program, he's getting it.

MARTIN: Because of that kind of feedback, Maryland is expanding the program to other parts of the state, including Prince George's County, a suburb close to Washington, D.C. That's where we met Patrick Drayton (ph), another Thrive Academy mentor.

Tell me how it works. Like, try to break it down for me so I can see it.

PATRICK DRAYTON: What we do is just try to change their mind frame. I spend time with these kids. I really do. I'm in they life. I may - I go - I try to go see them - some guys, I'm with them every day, the ones that I feel that need a little bit more help. Every day after work I'm with them, you know? It's either be going to eat, I'm taking them to go look for a job, I'm taking them to get a haircut. And I believe that you have to do that because if you don't, that's when they fall victim to want to hang out with their friends and...

MARTIN: So what's the theory behind? Is it the idea that they need somebody to show them, not just tell them?

DRAYTON: Exactly. Exactly. You know, 'cause I know that's what I needed. If you in a good environment, yes, you could tell your child go to school, get a job, and they'll listen because of the environment they are raised in. But when you're in a bad environment and you're telling a child go to school, but they see a lot of other kids not going to school, they're like, why I got to go to school? Why I got to get a job, you know? He's not doing it, you know? So (laughter).

MARTIN: So what do you say that's persuasive?

DRAYTON: I actually spent - I made me share my story, you know, and - of not listening, where that can lead you and also, you know, physically taking them.

MARTIN: But for people who think that the way to deal with this is basically just lock them up...

DRAYTON: Oh, that don't work.

MARTIN: ...And send them away and just stop talking about it.

DRAYTON: That don't work.

MARTIN: How come?

DRAYTON: Yeah. Because there's no more rehabilitation in the system. Nowadays, it's just warehousing. So they're not - people are not getting the help that's needed. So you're putting these same people back in society that you didn't even help. So what do you think is going to happen? So I believe programs like this really do help because you're really - you know, you're seeing the need and you're tending to that need, you know?

MARTIN: Paying people, especially ex-offenders to spend time with kids may sound expensive and even radical. But Maryland officials say it costs an average of $300,000 per year per juvenile offender to keep them incarcerated. Out of the 89 youth enrolled in Thrive, none has been shot, and five have been arrested for gun offenses, which the department says is a promising statistic for a program that's just begun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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 is the weekend host of All Things Considered, 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.