Why does Maryland try so many juvenile offenders as adults?

Despite Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis’ recent complaint that 90 percent of minors accused of serious crimes see their cases moved from adult court to the juvenile system, the truth is that Maryland juveniles charged with serious crimes are actually far more likely to be tried and sentenced in adult courts than in other states. That’s because in most states only a handful of egregious offenses — murder, rape, aggravated assault, etc. — are deemed serious enough to warrant starting a case against a juvenile in adult court. But Maryland has more than 30 crimes on the books in which adult court is the default for teen suspects, leading too often to onerous punishments that are more appropriate for hardened adult criminals than for youthful offenders who have a better chance of turning their lives around.

That’s why Maryland’s highest court agreed this fall to hear arguments over whether the state’s adult sentencing and parole laws amount to unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” when juvenile offenders receive life sentences. Make no mistake: Young people are capable of committing horrific crimes that society cannot and should not allow to go unpunished. But the courts also have begun to gradually move away from the “lock’em-up, throw away the key” mentality that resulted in life sentences or inordinately long prison terms for thousands of minors convicted of certain crimes. Maryland has farther to go than most states in this regard, but we hope the Court of Appeals, which is expected to hand down a decision next summer, will offer prosecutors, judges and corrections officials some much needed guidance on how to proceed.

As The Sun’s Alison Knezevich reported, the court will hear the appeals of four men who are all serving life terms or lengthy sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. All were tried and sentenced in adult court, including Matthew Timothy McCullough, who was sentenced to 100 years in prison for his role in a 2004 shooting outside Randallstown High School that left one student paralyzed. Mr. McCullough’s family says he has worked to rehabilitate himself during the years he has spent behind bars and that he deserves a second chance despite the terrible mistake he made in his youth. But the victim of the attack asks why Mr. McCullough should be given a second chance when the person he injured so grievously will remain confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in recently with a couple of rulings that found minors have some constitutional protections against inordinately long sentences. In 2010 the court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for offenses other than homicide; two years later it held that mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles. The narrow issue the Maryland court must decide is whether the state’s parole system gives juvenile offenders sentenced in adult court a “meaningful opportunity” to ever be released based on maturity and rehabilitation.

In the decades since Maryland’s current policy on juvenile justice went into effect, researchers have learned a great deal about the inner workings of the teenage brain and how it affects behavior. Studies have shown that teenagers’ prefrontal cortexes, which regulate the brain's exercise of moderation, impulse control and the understanding of consequences, are still only partially formed at a time when their bodies’ hormones are raging. As a result, the adolescent brain processes visual stimuli, facial expressions, body language and other social cues differently than adults. As such, there’s a case to be made that minors should never be charged and tried as adults regardless of the seriousness of their crimes. In effect, their judgment and decision-making faculties are so intrinsically impaired they might as well be considered legally insane as far as the courts are concerned.

Society hasn’t been willing to go quite that far as of yet. But the courts’ increasing willingness to hear arguments challenging the constitutionality of state laws that essentially make no distinction between juvenile and adult offenders is a sign of progress. Teenagers’ behavior can be genuinely dangerous, but that’s also how they learn to take responsibility for their actions, just as adults must. The state’s juvenile justice system was set up to help teens do precisely that, but it defeats the whole purpose of such efforts if offenders end up locked down for life in an adult facility with little hope of ever getting out.

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