Report says trying juveniles as adults is counterproductive

When he was 16, Haymond Burton hit a man over the head twice with a bottle. He says it was in self defense, but prosecutors charged him with attempted murder, which meant he would be tried as an adult under state law.

He was put in a Baltimore jail, in a separate wing for minor defendants, and waited more than a year for his trial, at which a jury acquitted him of all charges but second-degree assault — a crime that's usually dealt with in juvenile court. He was sentenced to five years' incarceration, spending his days among adults with long-term sentences and seemingly little to lose.

"The [adult pre-trial] jail experience was bad, you watched people get beat up, jumped on … people taking stuff from you, stealing stuff from you," Burton, now 19, said in a telephone interview last week. "Then you get into the prison, and it's a lot different. It's men. It's grown men. I seen people dying."

In the 1990s, concern over a rise in juvenile crime led many states, including Maryland, to implement laws that automatically put teens into the adult court system under certain circumstances. But a report being released today says that model doesn't work, even as the state prepares to begin construction on a $100 million facility to house kids charged as adults.

The Just Kids Partnership, made up of youth and legal advocacy organizations, spent a year following the cases of 135 Baltimore youths charged as grownups in the first half of 2009. The authors found, among other things, that the adult justice system:

•teaches teens to become violent criminals;

subjects them to sexual and physical abuse;

wastes taxpayers' money;

unfairly targets African Americans.

"The juvenile system is designed to rehabilitate … whereas the adult system is designed to punish only," said Laura E. Furr, who oversees Youth Justice Initiatives within Community Law In Action Inc.

Her group participated in the study, along with the Public Justice Center and United Parents of Incarcerated Children and Youth. It was paid for by the Open Society Institute, the Annie E. Casey foundation, and the Morton K. & Jane Blaustein Foundation.

If Burton had stayed in the juvenile system, Furr said, he would have likely had a trial within 45 days, instead of 15 months. He would have been required to attend school and treatment programs, and he would not have been segregated in a Baltimore jail cell for 23 hours a day while awaiting trial.

"A lot of that stuff really hardens you as a human being," said Burton, who was not part of the study, but has worked with Furr's group. He was sent home Tuesday to finish his sentence under electronic monitoring, after having served time in roughly five prisons during the past year, shuffled from place to place.

"You've got to harden yourself to get through it," he said. "The weak won't survive. It took a lot out of me."

The Just Kids Partnership wants a return to the pre-1990s system, where all juveniles were charged as such unless a judge decided their crimes could be dealt with only in adult court. Under the current law, teens 14 and older who are accused of certain violent crimes must be charged as adults from the outset and sent to juvenile court only after a judge considers the case.

Supporters of that tough-on-crime approach say it treats teens with the same degree of seriousness as their actions and serves as a deterrent for future delinquency.

"Automatically charging them as adults is the right thing to do. Then let the courts figure it out," said Gary McLhinney, a former city police union president who's now a labor negotiator for police officers across the state. "They need to understand right from the get-go that a crime of violence puts you in the adult system, and that means you're housed with adults.

"Anyone that thinks otherwise is being pretty naive to the situation of violence in our city," he said.

Earlier this year, teenager Lamont Davis was sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison for shooting a 5-year-old girl in the head while aiming at a male rival. And in August, a 14-year-old girl was charged as an adult with first-degree murder for allegedly shooting two men as they sat on the front steps of a rowhouse.

"When we have a city where 13-year-olds are committing murder, the days of innocent juveniles are long gone," McLhinney said.

He agrees with the report's authors that children are more likely to be rehabilitated than adults, but he thinks they should start in the adult system, and be waived back if a judge thinks it's appropriate.

About a third of the cases followed by the Just Kids Partnership were sent back to juvenile court for a resolution, after the teens spent an average of five months in jail waiting for a hearing. But many of them never had that chance, because their lawyers did not request such a "reverse waiver."

Another third of the cases were not prosecuted at all, the report said, and a quarter resulted in sentences of probation. Only 10 percent of the teens charged as adults were sentenced to prison time, though most experienced an adult jail setting while waiting for their cases to be heard.

That's the main reason behind the new youth detention center, planned for an area east of downtown Baltimore. Now, when teens are charged as adults, they are sent to a wing of the adult Baltimore City Detention Center, which the U.S. Department of Justice has long criticized as inadequate separation.

The Just Kids Partnership is against the facility, however.

"If you're going to put money into housing juveniles, it should be put into juvenile facilities," said John Nethercut, executive director of the Public Justice Center, which participated in the report and study.

In addition to changing juvenile justice laws, the Just Kids Partnership recommends that kids sentenced to adult prison should have their safety ensured, that treatment should be available for older teens in the juvenile system and that hearing delays should be eradicated. The group also wants better data collection, which is almost nonexistent today.

All those recommendations require money. And most have been put forth before.

The legislature created a commission to study juvenile justice jurisdiction more than a decade ago, and it found situations similar to those illuminated in the Just Kids report. But there was little to no follow-up, Nethercut said.

"We're reemphasizing this because we think it's important that policymakers again consider [the situation] … based on scientific evidence instead of politically popular wish lists," he said, adding that the next step is to open a dialogue with prosecutors, public defenders and the Department of Juvenile Services.

The Open Society Institute plans to hold a forum on the report later this month.

Burton is a reluctant spokesman for the group; he's uncomfortable talking about his time in prison.

"I shouldn't be in a place with somebody with a life sentence, I shouldn't have a bunk buddy who's got 35, 40 years," Burton said. "What if he decided to rape me one day? That's the type of things you have to [worry about] in the adult system."

Burton says he's grown. He can't explain the dumb things he did as a kid — stealing cars, using and selling marijuana. But he can make up for them in the future.

"Looking back two years ago, three years ago, I see a completely different person" now, Burton said. "I see a person more motivated, more focused, because I know what that other side is like. … I see myself going forward because that's not what I want."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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