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'Anything goes' on Philly streets, teen says

  • Story Highlights
  • Philadelphia's murder rate is returning to highs of 1980s
  • Police, prosecutors say one reason is the growing violence among youth
  • One teen says even having a "good-looking girlfriend" can get you shot
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By Ismael Estrada and David Mattingly
CNN
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PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- On the streets of Philadelphia's toughest neighborhoods, just trying to get ahead can get you killed.

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Andre, a 17 year-old from Philadelphia, has seen his brother shot and killed, and has been wanted for armed robbery.

"You got a good-looking girlfriend, you're going to get shot; someone wants her," said 17-year-old Andre, who asked his last name not be used for this article.

"If you're getting a little money, you're going to get shot -- someone wants that. Any way you look at it, it's just a bad situation."

Andre is caught up in the tough life on the streets of Philadelphia's Southside neighborhood. At 13, he watched his brother get shot and killed in front of his home by another teenager. By 15, he was wanted for two counts of armed robbery and theft.

"It makes you feel stronger, powerful, a bigger man," he said of having a gun. "You even walk differently when you have a gun on you."

He and others like him are the new face of violence in Philadelphia -- a younger, harder generation that lives and dies by the gun. Though it's spread throughout the city, the problem of youth violence is most acute in the southern, southwestern and northern parts.

Over the past couple of years, Philadelphia's murder rate reached highs not seen since the 1980s, according to the Philadelphia Police Department. So far this year, more than 315 people have been killed, a pace of well over a murder a day, police said. That's a higher rate, according to FBI statistics, than much larger cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

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But Philadelphia's situation is different today from years past in that more and more of the killers are teenagers, according to the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia District Attorney's office.

"They just shoot at anything and everybody, without even looking," said Shawn Banks, a former drug dealer and gang member. Now in his 30s, he said the new generation that rules the streets is made up of kids who shoot first and never consider the consequences.

"They [are] not respecting themselves and they don't have any value for human life," he said.

Nineteen percent of those held at Philadelphia's overcrowded juvenile detention center, The Youth Study Center, are guilty of committing violent crimes. This is in addition to those juveniles serving time at a nearby adult facility for more serious violent crimes like murder. Nearly one in four juveniles at the center become repeat offenders.

Staff members at the youth facility said whenever a teenager makes headlines, chances are it's someone they know.

Helping kids at the center can be difficult, according to some.

"Maybe they're here for 9 -12 months, but if they spent 13 years in an environment that maybe isn't good and has a bad influence on them, you're going to lean on those 13 years," said counselor Nelson Walker.

But the office of Philadelphia Mayor John Street said the city works hard to reach high-risk kids.

"We are not going to deny that we have a problem here," said Joe Grace, spokesman for the mayor's office. "And we work aggressively to work with young kids who we consider high risk."

Grace touts the Philadelphia anti-violence, anti-drug program, which targets kids who have been through the justice system and are on probation. The city tries to help them avoid becoming repeat offenders.

As a caseworker meeting on a daily basis with juvenile offenders, Shondell Revell knows what the streets can do to a young person.

"These kids are hard, because their neighborhoods are hard," he said. "They don't see the other side of life."

Reaching out to younger siblings of juvenile criminals is particularly important to stopping the cycle of violence, said Revell.

But Andre says the pull of violent street life is strong and that offenders often end up going back to the life they knew in order to survive.

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"Shooting, stabbing, killing, whatever it is -- whatever you gotta do to survive," he said.

"Anything goes -- anything." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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