J-ara White ,17, shows off a t-shirt honoring Charles Walker during a vigil for the teen on Feb. 20 in Prince George's Co., MD. Several people have been shot in PG County in recent days. (Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) (Bonnie Jo Mount/WASHINGTON POST)

In Prince George's County, where six public middle and high school students have been slain by gunfire this academic year, County Councilman Mel Franklin is emerging as a vocal leader among elected officials about what the community should do to.

Franklin blames single-parent households, babies having babies and, most importantly a justice system that is too soft on criminals. His thinking resonates in the county, especially among those desperate for answers who aren't hearing them from other elected leaders, like County Executive Rushern Baker. (More on Baker later.)

Franklin’s argument had me, too, for a while.

Take the reactions of a standing-room-only crowd at the Feb. 26 “State of Emergency” town hall meeting on youth violence at the Suitland Community Center.

Franklin, a lawyer and member of the Council Committee on Public Safety Policy, told the crowd of over 350 people that tougher punishment of criminals would go a long way toward deterring crime in the county. "Criminals know not to do these kinds of things in Virginia," Franklin said. "I hear that from police all the time. [Criminals] say let's go to Prince George's County."

His words received the longest and loudest applause of the night.

Minutes later, Janice Hatcher Liggins, founder of The Clarion Call Inc., a nonprofit that links at risk youth with other nonprofits with programs aimed at helping them, took the microphone. She recounted a recent example where a mother of a young teen boy was caught with drugs at a public school.

"He had enough that he was charged with possession with intent to distribute," Liggins said.

The mother reached out to Liggins, who arranged for the teen to enroll in a program that impressed authorities enough that the state did not go forward with the charges.

The crowd's reaction to her words: silence.

"I've come to expect that reaction now," Liggins said in an interview days after the town hall meeting. "I've done 15 speaking engagements around the county. The reaction is the same. Three or four years ago, I would have sat in the town hall meeting and said nothing as well."

What changed Liggins's thinking was learning just how stark racial disparities are in the justice system, especially among juveniles. Look at these points made in a report by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

*44 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crimes involve African American youth   although they represent 15 percent of the juvenile population.

*Minorities accounted for 67 percent of juveniles sent to public detention facilities nationwide, nearly twice their representation in the juvenile population.

*Minority juvenile offenders are more likely than whites to be placed in public instead of private detention facilities.

In Prince George's and the District, African American and Latino youth account for an overwhelming majority of youth in the juvenile offender system, in many years well over 90 percent. One reason minorities accounted for such a high percentage of the young people in the juvenile justice is that their parents often cannot afford to pay for costly private diversion programs. So in many cases, even those who deserve a break could not get one.

"I present people with an alternative they have not heard before," said Liggins, a native of Prince George's. "You can't incarcerate your way out of this problem."

That's where Councilman Franklin lost me, too. A litany of social ills and economic and class differences mean that layers of our community would be hit hardest by any get-tougher policy on offenders, including juveniles. There is proof up and down the justice system, including the disparity in treatment between people caught selling or using crack versus powder cocaine.

We cannot continue to throw away so many of our people. It destabilizes whole neighborhoods and only exacerbates the other issues Franklin raised: single-parent families and babies making babies.

Now, back to County Executive Rushern Baker. He did not attend the town hall meeting at Suitland Community Center last week, which some in the audience noticed. He did send representatives, including the police chief. Barry Hudson, Baker's spokesman, said Radio One Inc., the meeting's organizers, invited Baker to the town hall on Feb. 23 and that Baker could not get out of prior commitments. Baker was in Annapolis during the meeting.

One of things Baker was doing in the state capital, Hudson said, was "looking for juvenile justice dollars."

Keith Harriston formerly covered criminal justice issues and public safety policy for The Washington Post. He teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits hunewsservice.com