J.P. doesn’t remember exactly when he bought the gun; perhaps he was either 11 or 12. But the now-15-year-old remembers why he felt a need to get it.
“A lot of people hate, and they don’t want you in the world,” he said.
The West Baltimore youth looked down as he spoke, arms folded across his chest, and described his preteen years as a time when he was younger, homeless and had to make money to feed himself. Not having a gun was not an option.
He had the gun for about three years before he was caught and a court ordered him to get treatment services at Green Ridge Youth Center, a residential program run by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services in Allegany County.
Now, weeks away from leaving the center nestled between the tree-covered slopes and scenic roadways of Western Maryland, he said he plans to steer clear of trouble back home by doing things “different,” maybe becoming a professional boxer someday.
Nearly one-quarter of youths placed in a juvenile services facilities since last July have been charged with a handgun violation — like J.P. That’s a 38% increase in just the first 10 months of this budget year.
The statistic underlines gun violence involving youths, both as victims and perpetrators, and the availability of illegal guns in Baltimore and around the country. High school-aged victims 13- to 18-years-old comprised roughly 20% of all victims, a Baltimore Banner analysis found, a share that has risen in recent years.
The crisis looms as new Democratic Gov. Wes Moore has made public safety for all Marylanders 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, which include teaching children to think of consequences before acting and buffering children with community support to keep them from committing more crimes. And he proposes eliminating youth prisons in favor of smaller, 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. But one of the visible burdens before him doesn’t live inside the walls of his facilities:severing children with previous gun charges like J.P. — 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.
Youths charged in the juvenile system most at risk
On a recent Saturday morning in May, J.P. and his cohorts, J.O. and Rell — also charged with handgun violations — led an entourage including Schiraldi and center staff on a tour of the nondescript cement block buildings that serve as temporary places to eat, sleep, learn and recreate while they consider a path forward.
The youths, whose court records have been sealed, spoke with The Banner under the condition of anonymity. All said they had owned guns for years prior to 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 a summary of 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, according to a 2021 Baltimore City Health Department report.
”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.
Dozens of kids under juvenile services community supervision have been shot since Schiraldi took over in January. Far fewer have been perpetrators, he said.
But he rejects the outcry to lock up juveniles in prisons similar to those in the adult system, saying it’s a costly systemic reflex with no evidence of improving public safety.
Over the last two decades, juvenile crime has plummeted as juvenile incarceration has declined. If incarcerating children reduced illicit behavior, juvenile crime instead should have spiked, Schiraldi said. But it didn’t.
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, like Rell, J.P. and J.O., 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.
At Green Ridge, Schiraldi talks to kids and staff and searches for ways to improve their surroundings.
Before long he spots one and addresses it.
”How about you start calling them by their first name instead of their last name?” he asked the center’s superintendent.
Schiraldi later called the change small but consequential, and a larger part of dismantling a centuries-old mindset of othering incarcerated people. He sees himself not as a warden but as a community building partner, both inside and outside the centers. Fostering a more natural environment in which young people can gain life skills, educational mettle and self-control includes not indoctrinating them to an adult prison model.
“When custody meets care, custody always wins,” he said, of the pull within institutions to treat people like prisoners. “And so every day we wake up, we’re fighting against a draw: to institutionalize young people, to have them walk with their hands behind their back, to call them by their last name.”
‘I had to protect myself’
As Rell led the tour into an indoor basketball court followed by several youths, friendly trash talk flew through the air as basketballs swished through the nets.
Rell said he picked up a gun because “people I had problems with picked up a gun. So I had to protect myself.”
He vowed to never be incarcerated again. If he returns to Green Ridge, it will only be to visit, he said. He wants to build a career as a clothing designer and have a family.
His first encounter with the juvenile system has matured him enough to let “certain things slide,” he said.
“You’re gonna always just end up hurting yourself if you trip out about something,” Rell said.
He’s done well with the center’s rewards system, he said, which incentivizes positive behavior. Currency is earned for kindness, helping others and thinking before reacting. With points, residents can buy a pass to an off-campus trip, like a movie or a Chinese buffet.
Superintendent John Hare, who has worked his way up through the department since 2008 and took the center’s top spot last year, said the incentives work. Upon their return from trips, “kids are high spirited, they’re very happy; they’re eager to go again,” he said.
Rell said he’s next in line for a bed in the “Group 4″ dorm, a smaller room for residents who have consistently shown exceptional behavior. The coveted quarters — Hare’s creation — include special privileges, like plastic nightstands and Netflix.
The rewards systems and excursions were in place long before Schiraldi arrived, but align with his plans to frontload youth rehabilitation with positive experiences that build “on young people’s assets rather than reducing their deficits,” he said.
The state’s current strategy is far from the grueling boot camps designed to scare youths into submission, a practice the state shuttered decades ago amid an FBI investigation into civil rights abuses.
But Maryland still has room for progress. The state’s juvenile system watchdog cited an uptick in the use of seclusion and restraints in the quarter before Schiraldi took over.
The agency’s response echoed Schiraldi’s philosophies of replacing “punitive discipline control and compliance” with “access to nurturing relationships and abundantly available services, supports, and opportunities to foster skill building, growth, healing, and future success.”
However, the internal work heaped onto residents while inside the walls is not enough to insulate them from ongoing violence in communities where they once felt they needed a gun. Schiraldi said he’s ready to try something new to address what’s lacking.
While the current model works for most juvenile offenders, there’s a smaller percentage who may need more intensive supervision after release, he said.
With grant funding, Schiraldi will hire a team to implement a violence reduction strategy for those most at risk for relapsing into illicit behavior or being victimized themselves, he said. The program would be similar to the ongoing violence intervention program in West Baltimore, which may have reduced shootings in that part of the city last year.
Part of what the team will do is examine the social networks of high-risk teens to divert conflicts before they snowball or even have a chance to start.
Programs like the one Schiraldi plans can be effective, said Thomas Abt, a researcher and founding director of the University of Maryland’s Violence Reduction Center. But he cautioned that they are just part of the solution.
”These youth need a lot of very intensive programming, they need a lot of support. It’s not just about avoiding a particular beef, although that’s important,” he said.
”Today’s victim is tomorrow’s perpetrator and vice versa,” Abt said. “And because so much of this violence is retaliatory. What you see is people caught in a cycle of violence that they can’t seem to escape.”
‘Been there, done that’
Standing in one of Green Ridge’s classroom buildings, J.P. said his favorite subject is math. Rell likes history because he learns things he “never knew before.” They told Schiraldi they liked the change his administration has made by shifting from a one-room schoolhouse to teaching by grade and subject.
J.O., the quietest of the three youths, said he works in the vegetable garden every day, and his favorite subject is reading. The serious 17-year-old becomes animated as he talks about his favorite book written by formerly incarcerated author Chris Wilson, who, while in prison, lists his expectations for himself and his future. Wilson got out of jail in his mid-30s and became a successful employer and mentor to formerly incarcerated people.
“It relates to us because like, you know, we’re also in the system right now,” J.O. said.
Ironically, the foreword of J.O.’s favorite book was written by Moore before he became governor. Moore attended an event where Wilson spoke about mass incarceration’s stranglehold on the Black, male population of Baltimore.
“We are all better than our worst decision,” Moore wrote in the foreword. “Our sense of justice should honor the redemptive possibilities inherent in every person, and our destinies are truly intertwined.”
J.O. takes responsibility for his choices, and he’s grateful for the chance to “do something better” with his life. If he had been older, he knows he could have faced prison time.
”I can’t do the same stuff that I was doing before I got locked down,” the Prince George’s County teen said.
He didn’t have to get “in the mix,” he said; he chose to. But with his father incarcerated and his mother battling an addiction, he felt pressure to help his grandmother, who had cancer and diabetes, feed him and his siblings.
If he could go back in time and say anything to his 12-year-old self, he would tell him, “You’re doing it the wrong way.”
That was when he bought his first gun. He paid $800 for the Glock 19, he said. It was easy to get.
“It’s on the streets. Guns. Everybody got guns,” he said.
Someone killed his friend and J.O. retaliated — “I ended up shooting somebody” — and was charged with attempted murder and armed carjacking, he said.
Like the incarcerated author in his favorite book, J.O. has a plan for when he goes home. He wants to come back to juvenile services, but as an employee to work with incarcerated children. If that doesn’t work out, maybe he can find a way to be a child advocate, he said.
”I can relate to some of the youth here. I’ve been in their shoes. I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “So it’s like, why not come back and spread my words?”
Marie Jane Machin is a Maryland-based freelance photojournalist.