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A Times Editorial

What to do about teens gone terribly astray?

Another night, another murder and another teenager charged with shooting someone who was trying to protect the neighborhood. Larry Donell Brown, 16, has been charged with first-degree murder in the Nov. 21 shooting death at Tampa's Grande Oak Apartments of private security officer Michael Valentin, 38, who was married with two young sons. Brown has 36 previous arrests and 12 felony convictions — all since he turned 10 years old. It is a fair question to ask why a young man with a long history of violent offenses was on the streets — and to ask again what more Tampa Bay should be doing to reach teenage boys with no role models but plenty of access to guns.

The lengthy criminal record for someone barely old enough to drive is alarming enough. There should be a thorough review of Brown's record and the sentences he received. Most everyone deserves second chances, and sometimes more. But Brown was into double figures, and even a teenager with that many convictions should merit an examination of whether he should have been free to roam the streets at this point in his life. The public deserves an explanation.

But the criminal justice system and appropriate punishments for repeat offenders are not going to end the violence in too many poor communities on both sides of Tampa Bay. It's going to take a citizen effort, and in mid Pinellas a grass roots group is trying to do something to help steer young men on a positive path.

Robert Whiting and 20 other men, alarmed by the growing gang violence and murder in their Largo area and Clearwater neighborhoods, are trying to make a difference in the lives of at-risk young males. Their motivation to create a mentoring program at the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA involving coaches, ministers and neighbors is not grounded in abstract altruism. A former youth football coach, Whiting has seen six boys wind up in prison and three others die from gun violence in five years.

To be sure, Whiting and his earnest colleagues aren't deluding themselves. These men who are attempting to serve as father figures to at-risk boys and teens know they will face moments of frustration and failure. But they deserve a community's gratitude for trying to reach out to the Larry Browns of the world, and they could serve as an example for adults in other neighborhoods who want to mount similar efforts.

An effective criminal justice system is one method of dealing with violent crimes committed by young people who lack the role models and personal ambition to stay in school, off the streets and away from guns. But real success at turning lives around and preventing violent crime will take a much broader effort that starts with responsible adults in our own neighborhoods.

What to do about teens gone terribly astray? 12/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 5:45pm]
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