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A stolen cellphone, then an odyssey through Maryland's juvenile justice system

Before Michael ever saw the inside of juvenile lockup, caseworkers recommended he be sent home. The 13-year-old came from a stable, two-parent home in Columbia. He watched over his three younger siblings, did chores around the house, and enjoyed playing in his youth football league.

Before Michael ever saw the inside of juvenile lockup, caseworkers recommended he be sent home.

The 13-year-old came from a stable, two-parent home in Columbia. He watched over his three younger siblings, did chores around the house, and enjoyed playing in his youth football league.

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Then, he says, he fell in with the wrong group of kids. He was with one of the boys, he says, when they stole another teen's cellphone.

It was Michael's first offense. Juvenile caseworkers thought a letter of apology and counseling made the most sense. His attorney argued that a return home would be the best outcome for everyone.

But a judge disagreed. In 2013, Michael was ordered to spend 90 days in a state-run wilderness program for juvenile offenders.

When he failed to complete the program successfully, he was sent to another — and began a two-and-a-half-year odyssey through Maryland's juvenile justice system.

The Columbia teen had served about 300 days when caseworkers again recommended that he be sent home and helped there. Again, they were rebuffed.

Another 150 days passed, and the state panel charged with overseeing the most difficult cases weighed in, saying further commitment would not help him.

Later, a forensic psychiatrist joined the calls for release, saying the teen's behavior had become "reprehensible" — as a result of his being institutionalized.

Adults are sent to prison as punishment. But in Maryland and elsewhere, the goal of juvenile detention is rehabilitation.

During every step of Michael's journey through the system — eight programs in 29 months — his mother pleaded for his release.

"It felt like my son had been kidnapped," she said.

Finally, at Day 891, he was sent home. It was October 2015, and Michael was 16 years old. He'd had three birthdays in confinement.

As the nation debates criminal justice reform, leaders within the juvenile justice world are wrestling with questions specific to young offenders. Mounting evidence shows that commitments, especially for long periods, can cause children and their communities more harm than good.

Some advocates are calling for the entire incarceration system for youths to be scrapped. They say kids should be placed in group homes or sent home to receive treatment and counseling.

Attorneys and advocates say Michael's time inside the juvenile system is one of the longest periods in recent memory served by a Maryland teen who wasn't sentenced to a juvenile life sentence.

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But they say his experience is similar to that of hundreds of juvenile offenders.

The average stay of a juvenile offender in a committed facility in Maryland is seven and a half months, six weeks longer than a major study shows does juvenile offenders any good.

With only about half of the 1,156 placements last year considered successful by the state's own data, many teens are committed for months longer as they cycle through several programs.

Because juvenile records are confidential, it is rare to get a look at the journey of an individual child. But Michael and his mother agreed to share his records and discuss his case, and they allowed a reporter to follow them over the course of a year.

The Baltimore Sun does not typically identify juvenile offenders and is not identifying Michael by his full name because he fears it would stigmatize him as he gets older.

Mark Soler, the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, reviewed Michael's records at the request of The Sun. He said it shows why advocates are questioning the value of sending youths who commit minor offenses away for long periods.

"What is tragically common is that young people get in trouble for a first offense, and they get into the system when they don't need it, and they then meet other young people who are much more serious delinquents," he said.

"The best way to handle situations like this is to build on the strengths that young people have" — in Michael's case, his family and community.

Sam J. Abed, the secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, has cut the number of teens going into the juvenile system by about 40 percent in the past five years. The goal is to focus on the minority of the children who are assessed as dangerous, while steering away teens who can be helped in their own communities.

A department spokeswoman said officials could not comment on specific cases.

Juvenile Services caseworkers and attorneys for the state and the offenders all play a role in the decision to commit a youth, but the final call is made by a judge.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in 2015 that the likelihood of commitment in Maryland varies depending on where the juvenile is arrested.

Michael was brought before Judge Herman C. Dawson, who oversaw most of the juvenile cases in Prince George's County.

In its report, the Casey Foundation said that Prince George's committed youths at above-average rates. And defense attorneys have challenged Dawson's rulings.

Concerned, the state's top public defender dispatched an attorney to observe Dawson's courtroom for two months this year.

Stephen Bergman, supervising attorney with the state's Juvenile Protection Division, joined Prince George's County public defenders in filing habeas corpus petitions that released teens from unlawful detentions.

Bergman said there were "clear violations of children's due-process rights in juvenile court in Prince George's County," where he said "detention is routinely illegally used … as punishment."

In response to one filing by Bergman, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals found this year that Dawson had overstepped his discretion by sending a youth to an out-of-state placement.

Dawson declined to speak to Michael's case. But he said he makes judgments based on a youth's best interest.

He said he has worked in recent years to cut down the juvenile offender population in Prince George's, and he works in community programs to keep juveniles out of his courtroom.

"My goal," he said, "is to make sure that each and every kid that comes in front of me gets the help that he or she needs so they can be productive members of society."

891 days

Michael stood before Dawson in May 2013 and pleaded "involved" in the theft of an iPhone.

"I just told him I was young and dumb, and was influenced by my peers," Michael said.

The Department of Juvenile Services recommended that he write a letter of apology, be placed on supervised probation, abide by a curfew and participate in counseling and treatment at home.

Instead, Dawson sent him to Mountain Quest, a 90-day wilderness program Allegany County. It was the first of eight facilities he would cycle through — his behavior getting worse at each stop.

Discharge summaries show that he grew verbally abusive to staff and peers. He tried to instigate altercations. He began to brag about delinquent behaviors in order to get attention and respect.

Psychologists diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder — and said he would be better treated at home.

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In April 2014, Juvenile Services workers recommended for a second time that Michael be returned to his community. But Dawson sent him to the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, the state's maximum-security facility for juveniles.

At the time, Cullen had a five-step behavior modification program. If Michael had reached Level 5, he would have been sent home. He never made it past Level 2.

"They didn't like for you to laugh and play around," Michael said. "And I did that a lot."

In his discharge summary, a Juvenile Services caseworker at Cullen recommended he be released back to his community.

A month later, Patricia Flanigan, a member of the state committee that reviews placements in which children are struggling, reinforced that call.

"He seems to be a youth who cannot benefit from a residential program," Flanigan wrote, "and his assessed risk level does not indicate a need for continued removal from the community and his family."

What Michael says he remembers most from those years was how often guards restrained him, putting their knees in his back and pulling his arms behind him. He says he fought other youths to earn respect. Records show he was put on at least eight psychiatric medicines. He said he asked for and got extra pills to give him a high and help him "stay sane."

"I was really messed up," he said.

Two placements later, a forensic psychiatrist at the Mid-Atlantic Youth Center in northeastern Pennsylvania noted signs of progress. After months of "sporadic and limited" contact with his family, it was one of the few periods when he was able to connect with his mother weekly, via Skype.

He also did well in school. His parents had gone to college, and he aspired to be an engineer. Transcripts show he had scored 90s in most of his classes, and 96 percent in algebra.

In his final evaluation, Dr. Ronald Means, the psychiatrist at Mid-Atlantic, noted that federal guidelines say secure detention and confinement are almost never appropriate for young, vulnerable, first-time offenders with active, involved parents.

"His role in the prolongation of his placement cannot be ignored," Means wrote, "but it is important to note that Michael was very young when placed in environments with older youth.

"In addition to his ADHD, he was impulsive and even more immature. He was separated from his family as a young teenage boy, and he set out to try to establish a reputation in these facilities, in part, as defense for his vulnerability. He sought attention via extremely negative behaviors, and as a result, he is now in a cycle of acting out behaviors that has been self-destructive."

Had he been treated in the community, Means said, Michael could have avoided the negative results of his long-term placements.

Five months later, with a different judge on the bench, Michael was released.

Going home

When he returned home in October 2015 — a towering teenager, his voice deeper, his eyes a bit wilder — his mother barely recognized him. They stared at each other across the dining room table of their Columbia townhouse, laughing uncomfortably.

"It took three years away from him," Keisha Hogan said, in his presence. "I have to undo all of that."

Hogan agreed to be identified by The Sun because she has a different last name than her son. She has also spoken publicly about his case and appeared in a campaign advertisement against Dawson.

In his first week home, Michael hadn't talked much about his experience, so she was unsure where to start.

"You just look so skinny to me," she told him. She guessed he had lost at least 40 pounds, and started breading catfish nuggets.

When the young boy with chubby cheeks went away, Hogan had been a mother of four for only a little while. Michael's two sisters and brother grew two and a half years in his absence, and now he was trying to re-establish his place in the family.

He bossed his younger siblings around, even demanding hugs and kisses. He complained to his mom that his sister, just a year younger than him, was different than when he'd left.

"You let her get too grown," he snapped.

He was different, Hogan said — more argumentative. Activities that had been routine, such as getting up and going to school, were now a battle. After being locked away so long, Michael needed to be outside more. Hogan was more lenient about letting him stay out past when the streetlights came on.

"I have to let him because he just cannot be confined," she said.

He tried to do normal teenage things. He hung out at the McDonald's — when he was committed, he craved French fries and chocolate milkshakes. He stayed away from the mall because the crowds made him anxious.

Thanksgiving was around the corner, and mother and son both were looking forward to celebrating their first holiday together at home in years.

"Nothing was as fun when he wasn't here," Hogan said. "I didn't feel right enjoying the day."

His mother asked what he was thankful for that year.

"To be home," he answered. "That's it."

Back to school

He went to Homewood Center, an alternative public school in Ellicott City that takes in struggling students, including those released from juvenile custody.

He came home with a full schedule of seven classes. Many were in subjects he had completed during his confinement: English, Earth science, algebra and geography.

Researchers say education is the best way to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. Maryland's juvenile education program has struggled with chronic understaffing and poor programming.

Lawmakers have pushed for an overhaul of the program, but Michael's experience was typical.

In his short-term placements, he mostly completed worksheets. In long-term placements, he would learn new lessons for three months, then start over when teachers hit the reset button to accommodate new arrivals.

When he was released, he was told he'd earned enough credits to at least reach 11th grade. But Homewood gave him ninth- and 10th-grade classes.

Still, he was hopeful. He felt he was already smart, and he especially enjoyed math.

"If I look at it long enough," he said, "I can figure it out."

But he soon concluded he could never catch up. He felt betrayed.

"The whole time I was locked up, the staff was pumping my head up, like, 'This will help you in the long run,'" he said.

"It's the long run, and I'm back at square one."

His first week in school, he began roaming the halls, as he had as a special education student in elementary school, when he was bored.

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School administrators told him to take a day off, he said, and called his mother. They told her they were planning to charge him with "disturbing school activities." By the end of the month, his schedule had been reduced to half-days, from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.

By mid-December, the school shaved off another hour. His guidance counselor advised him he wouldn't graduate on time.

His mother was frustrated. He'd been home only eight weeks.

"You haven't even made a dent in your bed yet," she said. "How are we talking about a GED?"

He let go of his engineering dream and started to think about trade school.

Falling apart

"It all fell apart!" his mother screeched.

Weeks into 2016, Michael kicked in the door of their family home. He had become more aggressive and defiant. He went to school only for attendance. His fits had thrown the house into chaos.

"That's what you get back from juvenile services, hand-delivered," she said. "They released a monster."

In February, he was charged with three crimes in three weeks. He was accused of stealing a car in Howard County. And when he visited his grandmother to help her dig out of a big January snowstorm, he was accused of burglarizing a home and later stealing a car in Prince George's County.

Police picked him up on Feb. 28. It was four months to the day since he'd been released from the juvenile system. This time, he was facing adult charges for the Howard County car theft.

He was detained for several weeks, and then released with a monitoring bracelet on his left ankle.

In April, after an argument with his mother, he cut it off.

In May, his mother pleaded with a magistrate that she hadn't had enough time to help her son adjust to life after his commitment.

"You're expecting me to manage a caged animal and change him in six months," she said.

The victims of his alleged crimes were requesting $1,700 in recompense.

One shouted: "They have to learn this is not a game!"

He was facing another long placement in a juvenile facility. After years of fighting it, his mother found herself wondering if that might be best.

She felt the outside world was unpredictable, unfamiliar to him, and that he was more used to being confined.

"He knows that environment," she said. "He knows the rules there."

A growing body of research shows that confinement tends to increase the odds that a youth will be rearrested.

"If you look at our response to juvenile delinquency, you almost couldn't design a system more likely to result in higher levels of recidivism and damage," said Patrick McCarthy, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

McCarthy is now helping to lead a campaign to abolish youth incarceration and replace it with community-based alternatives.

He co-wrote a major study with Harvard University and the National Institute of Justice in October that concluded juvenile facilities around the country are ineffective, expensive and prone to abuse. The researchers said the programs exacerbate trauma and inhibit positive growth while failing to address public safety.

Michael's mother feels he needs to take responsibility for his actions. But she also believes that many of the promises the juvenile programs made about helping him weren't kept.

"I feel like my son was set up to fail," she said.

In a study released this month, researchers at the Northwestern University medical school found that outcomes for delinquent youths — and especially black males — five and 12 years after they'd been detained were bleak.

In the first-large scale longitudinal study on the subject, they found that few finished school or found work, and many pursued further criminal activity.

Michael knows he's at a crossroads. His relationship with his family is damaged. Now 17, he is studying for his GED and working a part-time job.

He is now on supervised probation for the car theft charge, and is facing juvenile charges for theft.

If he reoffends, he could be sent to prison. That scares him. But after his time in the juvenile system, he feels somehow prepared.

"There's a part of lockup," he said, "that's always going to be in you."

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