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Use every weapon in the fight against Baltimore’s gun violence | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Sun - 3/8/2023

Rarely does a day go by when there is not another heartbreaking reminder that Baltimore remains among the nation’s most dangerous cities for gun violence, particularly for young Black men and boys. On Monday, it was the tragic news of a 16-year-old Patterson High School student found fatally shot in the head not far from the East Baltimore campus. He was the fifth city teenager under 17 killed this year. In reaction, Mayor Brandon Scott issued yet another plea for young people to find other ways to resolve their differences. “You have to be the change,” he urged in his statement, which assumes the perpetrators of the violence are also teens. “You must take stock of those around you — and ask yourself: Are they trying to go where you want to go?”

And he’s absolutely right. Young people not yet old enough to vote are making life and death decisions about their futures and the futures of those around them. They have ample access to guns, yet limited self control and an apparent inability to grasp the consequences of their split-second decisions. They are acting, but they need to start thinking — really thinking about what it is they want to make of this one life they’ve got. The obstacles in their way now are nothing compared to those the justice system will impose, or the grim reaper. What good is it to be in the right in some street beef if you end up dead or locked up?

But self reflection among troubled teens isn’t enough to change the city’s trajectory. That will take an army of intervention.

It starts at home, where parents and guardians have the responsibility to set examples for young people of how to handle conflict, what it means to hold a job, how to be accountable to their community.

Schools then have a role in opening minds to new paths and possibilities, and furthering the foundation begun at home; and they should be adequately funded for the job.

But even with those supports, some young people will fall through the cracks, with many experiencing multiple traumas before their 13th birthday and leaving them with the impression that they don’t matter, their lives don’t matter, they are unlovable. That’s where groups like Roca come in, showing up on the doorsteps of young people identified as “at-risk” of violence and coming back again and again until their counselors are accepted and able to implement services including cognitive behavioral therapy and employment classes to prevent young people from growing so hopeless they turn to violence.

Then there’s Safe Streets, which seeks to interrupt violence in real time, acting as mediators when needed.

And when those efforts fail, we rely on policing to deter crime through the threat of punishment and make our streets safe by removing repeat offenders from them, but it must be done smartly, empathetically and accountably.

Lawmakers in Annapolis are now engaged in debate — once again — over criminal sentencing. Baltimore’s newly elected top prosecutor, Ivan Bates, wants to see certain gun possession laws toughened, but research shows that longer sentences don’t necessarily deter crime. While a “lock ‘em up strategy” may take potential offenders off the streets in the short term, what good is that if the time in prison doesn’t offer meaningful skills or life training to prevent recidivism when they get out?

That’s not an argument for less policing or no arrests or no prison time. But it is a reason for state lawmakers to pursue smarter strategies. With greater police funding comes greater responsibility — and greater community oversight to repair a relationship badly damaged by corruption, racial animus and brutality. The more police can be trusted, the better they can perform their jobs.

Other laudable efforts in the city’s crime fight include legislation that was heard this week in Annapolis offering a simple, but clearly compelling, approach in dealing with violence after the fact: Create a $5 million statewide fund to reward tipsters for information they provide local police agencies to solve murders and attempted murders. Metro Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit, is woefully underfunded, its grants too modest to have a substantial impact. But a $5 millionCrime Solvers Reward Fund? That could offer the kind of payout that might entice witnesses to come forward.

Of course, a reward fund won’t stop gun violence in its tracks. None of these things on their own will. That will take a holistic approach, an engaged population, dependable investment and time. We hold no illusions. The road ahead is hard — as it has been for the past eight years of 300-plus annual homicides. But cutting gun violence by 20% over the next five years, as city leaders last month pledged as part of a national coalition, is within reach if we leave no strategy behind.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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