Baltimore youth need services, not prison

Anyone who has tried to debate a high school freshman knows perhaps one of the world’s universal truths: Teenagers are not rational adults. This simple truism, experienced by parents the world over, is also why children should not be tried as adults.

The leadership in the Baltimore City Police Department and State’s Attorney’s Office disagree. They claim that some children are not “regular kids,” but “violent offenders” who should be treated as adults and locked up.

My office represents a child who was only a toddler when his family found him chewing on paint chips. Lead paint, which remains an epidemic in Baltimore, attacks the brain and central nervous system, causing cognitive deficits and behavioral disorders that can impair decision-making abilities.

Police claim he robbed numerous people. That is all you will hear about him on the nightly news. What you won’t hear is how many days he went without food before his first stick up or how thin he was when arrested. You won’t hear from the police podium how adults guided him toward these crimes. Politicians won’t tell you how the robbery proceeds went directly into the hands of the adults who failed him his whole life. He can’t vote, can’t rent an apartment, can’t enroll in the military or make a medical decision for himself. He is not an adult in any way, shape or form, but the Maryland criminal justice system wants to punish him like one.

Currently under Maryland law there are more than 30 crimes for which 16-year-old children can be charged as an adult. Many of these children can ask a judge to review their case and decide whether they should be transferred back to juvenile court. This procedural step is in place for good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control, children jailed in the juvenile system are less likely to return to violence and to crime than those who are sentenced as adults. Incarcerated youth are also more prone to commit another offense and less likely to complete high school or get a job than youth who receive community-based services. In other words, treating and punishing kids like adults leads to more crime and increased levels of violence — not less.

My office’s Youthful Defender Unit (YDU) represents children charged as adults in Baltimore. YDU ensures that decision-makers fully understand the complex and difficult circumstances that can lead a young person to make terrible mistakes. The unit proposes more effective responses that will deter future criminal behavior.

Children transferred out of the adult system are held accountable in an age appropriate manner. The majority of children transferred back into the juvenile system who are charged with violent crimes are sent to secure facilities and only released upon completion of the program. They are monitored upon release until the termination of juvenile jurisdiction, which can last until the age of 21.

Detention, long prison sentences and criminal sanctions exacerbate crime and destabilize families, while rehabilitation and access to education can prevent future crime. That’s why, rather than try more children as adults, other states are increasingly limiting pathways to transfer youth to the adult system or creating ways to return more youth to juvenile court. Maryland should take note and follow suit.

Last year, a record number of children charged as adults in Baltimore were transferred back to the juvenile system, while the 12-month juvenile recidivism rate in Maryland dropped 20 percent, a downright feat after the recidivism rate held stubbornly steady for years. The past two years have seen a 38 percent reduction in juvenile complaints in Baltimore, amounting to nearly 1,000 fewer juvenile court cases. This should be a huge headline in a year that saw increased violence and an uptick in the city’s murder rate.

That isn’t to say that children are never responsible for violence. Some kids do hurt people. But how we respond depends on what kind of society we want to be. We can throw kids who have experienced incredible amounts of trauma, abuse, lead paint poisoning and educational neglect into adult prisons and compound those problems. Or we can respond to violence in an age and developmentally appropriate manner that addresses and mitigates those issues.

If we want to curb juvenile delinquency and violent crime, then we should increase the community based services available. This will reduce the frequency, duration and severity of justice system involvement, which can result in increased lifetime productivity and decrease the burden of costs shouldered by the public.

Paul DeWolfe (pdewolfe@opd.state.md.us) is the public defender of Maryland.

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