Fifteen-year-old Robert Gladden has been charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder in connection with last week’s shooting at Perry Hall High School, an aggressive measure by prosecutors in response to a high-profile crime.
Despite his youth, Gladden is one of many being treated like a legal adult in Maryland courts — forgoing a juvenile justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and limits confinement.
Since 1994, the General Assembly has drawn up a growing list of crimes for which Maryland prosecutors must charge children as adults. Teenagers as young as 14 can be charged as adults in violent or sexual crimes that could be punishable by life in prison or death. (Even though those are the qualifications, juveniles aren’t eligible for capital punishment.)
The list for older juveniles, between 16 and 18, is longer and includes carjacking and attempted robbery.
In Baltimore County on Thursday, 21 juveniles were being held on adult charges, including two on murder and three on attempted murder. Eleven were held on armed-robbery charges and five on gun allegations.
In 2011, 771 juveniles were charged as adults in Maryland, according to statistics collected at the request of a House of Delegates subcommittee investigating whether to provide juveniles charged as adults with a separate jail. No information was available about incarceration rates of juveniles convicted as adults.
As the default for many crimes has shifted to charging juveniles as adults, Byron Warnken, associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the law has become “more pro-prosecution.” Juveniles charged as adults bear the burden of convincing a judge that their cases should not be handled in adult courts by asking for a waiver.
Attorneys push hard to win waivers, Warnken said, because cases heard in juvenile courts do not result in a criminal record, and a person convicted cannot be imprisoned with adults and has to be released at the age of 21.
“If you are the defense counsel, even if you lose everything else, if you win the jurisdictional issue, today was a winning day,” Warnken said.
Scott Shellenberger, the state’s attorney for Baltimore County, said he sees many challenges to the adult designation. “They almost always ask to be waived down,” he said.
Already, Gladden’s attorney, George Psoras, has suggested that Gladden did not intend to fire his weapon and only shot when he was tackled by a school guidance counselor. Psoras could not be reached for comment.
While many crimes committed by people under the age of 18 are tried as though the defendants were adults, many are also handled by the juvenile justice system. Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said the total annual number of individuals detained in juvenile facilities is probably somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000, he said.
In normal circumstances, Gladden might make a good candidate for a waiver, Warnken said, given his age and lack of previous criminal history. But the high profile of the case could work against Gladden, Warnken said.
“A judge would not want to look like he’s not taking this seriously,” he added.