Do You See a Kid or a Criminal?

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Carlos Williams (not his real name) is 12 years old, firmly built, and somewhat short for his age: a miniature replica of Sidney Poitier. Born into crushing poverty and turmoil, he virtually raised himself, making credible the conservative ideal of personal reliance and self-determination. To watch Carlos doing back flips on the ground is to recognize his athletic promise. But there is more to him than grace and muscle; he also has a penchant for art and a keen imagination. I call him Spunky.

When I first met him, almost a year ago, Carlos expressed a desire to become a doctor. He had just been promoted to the sixth grade but, unfortunately, he could not read. With his mother's consent, I offered to sponsor him at a private school. That meant exchanging familiar surroundings for an unknown and often surly environment, and the requirement to begin at the fourth-grade level. The choice was tough, but Carlos made it with aplomb.

For Christmas, Carlos wanted a mountain-bike, which he received after decoding the clues in a holiday card. The treasure-hunt culminated when my husband vowed to take him riding through the trails of Monkton. In late April the two dashed for 18 miles, with Carlos making motorcycle sounds whenever he raced ahead.

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Back home in Baltimore, later that day, my husband went looking for a hose to clean up the muddy bicycles while Carlos, wanting to be helpful, began to dismount them from the car. A rude shout from a neighbor in the next building interrupted his task: "Get off that car! Back off! Back off!" Before my husband had returned with the hose, minutes later, three squad cars had been summoned and Carlos was being interrogated by the police.

Every time I tell this story, I hear a similar response: "Pitiful but understandable; people are so fed up with crime, and so afraid of the young black men responsible for it, that you can't blame them for an overzealous reaction."

Was the man's behavior as sensible as those statements claim? Was it reasonable to see in Carlos a potential felon? No. Ignorance and mendacity surround the subject of black crime in general and of youth crime in particular. The facts are these:

*The proportion of violent offenses committed by blacks has been level for more than a decade. Since the mid-1970s, fewer than half of those arrested for murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault have been black. Starting in 1992, that proportion began to decline slightly.

*Although black crime has diminished, the likelihood of arrest and confinement for black men (and women) has increased since 1980. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, but they comprise 45 percent of those detained for crimes against persons and property. Michael Tonry, a highly respected professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota, notes that incarceration rates for blacks in 1991 (1,895 per 100,000) were nearly seven times higher than those for whites (293 per 100,000), a disparity so wide that it cannot be fully explained without taking race into account: Being black raises the probability of punishment regardless of the seriousness of the offense.

This does not begin to address questions about juvenile crime. Americans are most afraid of young felons and rightly so. Young men tend to be more reckless than adults and more likely to lash out against strangers. Homicide by youths under 17, both black and white, tripled between 1984 and 1994. In 1986 there were 300 homicide-related arrests per 100,000 youngsters 10 to 17 years old; in 1994 that figure was 500.

The gun epidemic of the 1980s and '90s made it possible for young toughs to enact power fantasies in dangerous ways. And because much violence is drug-related, it tends to be concentrated among poorly educated youngsters in distressed neighborhoods who often perceive drug-dealing as an avenue to economic progress. This grim reality, however, conceals critical evidence:

*Most African-American youths do not break the law; the majority of those who do are in the upper end of the age bracket - between 16 and 25. The peak age of young criminals is 17.

*Although the number of youths 14 or under arrested for murder jumped 43 percent in two decades, the 1994 total of 379 nationwide is less than 2 percent of all homicides. When all youngsters in the same age cohort in the country are considered - approximately 15 million - the 379 detentions are a minuscule portion.

*Despite a few sensational incidents amply covered by the popular media, children below the age of 16 are seldom involved in crime of any kind. In 1993, for the whole state of Maryland, 1,003 youths between the ages of 10 and 12 were detained, just one-half of 1 percent out of a total of 196,000 in the same age cohort. Most arrests were for small violations.

It's worth repeating: Most children in American cities do not commit crimes. That is true even for youngsters who live in neighborhoods characterized by appalling poverty, ineffectual schools, and residential segregation, all factors known to increase the likelihood of illicit behavior. In fact, what is remarkable is not that many black youngsters are in trouble but that so many of them abide by mainstream norms despite little hope of a satisfactory education and future access to jobs worth having.

This is not to say that concerns over crime are not justified. They are - especially those about the kind of crime that destroys young lives. It is also true that observance of one's own neighborhood is an exemplary sign of local citizenship. On the other hand, calling the police on a young boy without first asking questions demonstrates senseless hostility.

If my neighbor had been aware of the real statistics, he would have known that a youngster of that age, at that time of day, was probably not breaking the law. Had he asked Carlos what he was doing, he would have received a polite answer. His lack of familiarity with the facts was compounded by callousness.

Ignorance allows the venting of prejudice without a need for remorse. But the price is high in that we end up magnifying the very nightmare we seek to dispel, confusing even babes with monsters. There's a better way to balance apprehensions about crime with the respect every youngster deserves: Next time you suspect a boy of mischief, ask first the questions you would ask your own son.

He's probably not that different. He's probably a lot like Spunky.

*M. Patricia Fernandez Kelly is a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies and department of sociology.

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