SALISBURY, Md. – Jackie Castillo saw a friend shot with a pellet gun. She was mugged twice. Her home was burglarized. By age 20, she had seen enough.
Castillo and her husband left their crime-ridden Bronx neighborhood three years ago in search of a safer and cleaner place to live.
They thought they had found it in Salisbury, an Eastern Shore town of 25,000 residents where almost everyone knows the mayor and business owners decorate the downtown plaza for most holidays. But even Salisbury and its suburbs have been hit by the crime that comes with urbanization.
Wicomico County officials say lawlessness among youths has reached “epidemic proportions.” Juvenile arrests in the county peaked last year at 1,342 – a nearly 60 percent increase from the 847 arrests in 1990, state records show.
The trend was enough to alarm Castillo and others. They’re using town meetings and brainstorming sessions with community leaders to try to prevent this generation of troubled youths from becoming the next generation of prison inmates.
“If we don’t do something about [crime], we’re going to be a little New York City. And this is too small of a community to survive that,” said Castillo, 23, a board member of the Camden Neighborhood Organization.
Juvenile arrests in all nine Eastern Shore counties have risen since 1990, state police records show.
Increases range from a 4 percent growth in Cecil County, where youth incidents rose from 1,098 in 1990 to 1,136 in 1995, to a 395 percent hike in Kent County, where arrests rose from 55 in 1990 to 272 in 1995.
State figures also have climbed steadily, from the 37,450 juvenile arrests in 1990 to 50,277 in 1995 – an increase of 34 percent.
During that same period, adult arrests in Maryland increased by 4.4 percent – from 226,605 in 1990 to 236,554 in 1995.
Wicomico County Sheriff Hunter Nelms said it is not just the rising numbers, but the types of crimes juveniles are committing that are so distressing.
When he began his career as a state trooper in 1965, youth crime meant traffic violations, shoplifting and bicycle theft, Nelms said. Today’s juvenile offenders face charges for homicides, rapes, drug crimes and malicious assaults.
“Kids today will fight over a look,” the sheriff said. “And I mean fight to the death. They have no fear of retaliation, no fear of death. That’s the juvenile we see today.”
There were two juvenile rape arrests in 1995 in Wicomico County, which has a population of about 80,000. There also were 156 drug-related arrests, 19 robberies, 78 felonious assaults, 80 cases of breaking and entering, 315 larceny thefts, 45 motor vehicle thefts and 321 crimes classified by police as “other assaults,” records show. Some of the offenders were under 10.
Wicomico County Deputy Mark Barbre patrols Sector 3, the drug-infested and high-crime home of the county housing projects on the west side of Salisbury. He has seen firsthand what juvenile criminals can do.
“They’ve got dope, guns, weapons,” he said, idling his police cruiser past a group of young men who glared into the car. “You’ve got to be more careful with a juvenile than an adult. They’re carefree. They think they’re Superman. They think nothing they do is going to hurt them. They think they’re invincible.”
Luis Luna, director of the Greater Salisbury Committee – a nonprofit coalition of business leaders – says answers lie in prevention.
“Once they’ve got a gun, it’s too late,” he said. “We need to get to them when they pick up a BB gun or a slingshot or a block to throw at another kid across the playground.
“If you set up a one-size-fits-all program and the kid doesn’t like it, you’ve lost him.”
Leaders in law enforcement, criminal justice, education, health care, social services and community organizations have been meeting about once a month for the past few months through Luna’s committee to discuss preventative measures.
One outgrowth of work by the Greater Salisbury Committee has been a group called OUR Community Inc. The group, whose name stands for “Organize, Unite and Revitalize,” developed a series of awareness activities, such as neighborhood watch groups, to encourage community involvement in solving community problems, said Executive Director Randolph G. Outen.
Outen took charge of OUR Community a year and a half ago when it separated from the committee.
Another community program – the Salisbury Neighborhood Housing Service – spurred Castillo into activism when she attended a leadership training program it offered.
A booklet among her course materials – called “How to Fight Crime” – motivated her to organize a Block Captains program about a month ago to combat the drugs and prostitution she has seen creep into her Camden neighborhood.
She selects one neighbor on each block to post signs about town meetings, to distribute a “how-to and who’s-who” booklet about the neighborhood to new residents, and to be the eyes and ears of the police. “We’re not out there to attack people,” Castillo said. “But we want the quote-unquote bad guys to know we’re out there.” -30-