WASHINGTON -- As Maryland's policy-makers grapple with the best way to reform the state's juvenile justice system, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that fewer young people should be incarcerated with adults.
In his State of the State address, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said, "We need to stop routinely condemning so many young offenders to the adult criminal justice system through incarceration and neglect." A week later, Del. Salima S. Marriott of Baltimore introduced legislation in the General Assembly to help make the governor's words a reality. The bill was to be heard today before the House Judiciary Committee.
Each year, more than 1,000 youths are sent to Maryland's adult jails. Data and experience show that youths incarcerated with adults are more likely to be sexually assaulted, more likely to commit suicide and more likely to be arrested when they return to the community than youths kept in the more rehabilitative juvenile justice system.
In research conducted by Columbia University, youths in adult prisons reported that they were five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be attacked with a weapon and 50 percent more likely to be beaten by staff than youths incarcerated with other juveniles.
In 1998, a 16-year-old learning-impaired boy from Elkton began a six-month odyssey in an adult jail. Although he was subsequently exonerated (when an adult offender was arrested and charged), he was raped and repeatedly stabbed in the adult jail, causing the innocent boy psychological scarring that will never heal.
In 1999, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report about conditions for young people in Maryland's jails, finding clear evidence of the dangers youths face and the lack of educational and mental health services available.
According to Justice Department research, youths in adult jails are eight times as likely to commit suicide as youths in juvenile facilities.
In 1996, Rodney Hulin, 17, received an eight-year adult sentence in Texas. Upon his incarceration, the slight inmate was repeatedly raped. He begged prison officials to put him in protective custody. When they failed to act, he hanged himself.
Last year, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice released a comprehensive study of youths with similar records who committed similar crimes. Analyzing more than 300 pairs of matched youths in adult or juvenile facilities, the researchers found that youths sentenced as adults were significantly more likely to reoffend -- and to reoffend in more serious crimes -- than youths in the juvenile justice system.
Not only does imprisoning young people with adults jeopardize their safety and result in higher rearrest rates, but such sentencing is meted out more harshly to youths of color, unfairly exacerbating disparities in Maryland's justice system.
In a report issued in October 2000 by the Building Blocks for Youth initiative, researchers found that in Baltimore, an astonishing 92 percent of cases filed in adult criminal courts involved minority youths. Ninety-seven percent of all youths charged as adults who were detained pretrial were held in adult jails.
White youths were 11 times more likely than black youths to be represented by private attorneys, and youths represented by private attorneys were less likely to be convicted and more likely to be transferred back to juvenile court. Ultimately, black youths were 43 percent more likely than white youths to be incarcerated.
The legislative fix is simple and effective: Return discretion in the decision on where youths should be tried to judges.
Today, too many youths are automatically tried as adults or are tried at the sole discretion of the state's attorney. The Building Blocks for Youth report found that 96 percent of the determinations to prosecute youths in adult court were made by prosecutors and legislators while only 4 percent were made by judges.
By returning discretion to judges, prosecutors could still apply to have a youth tried in adult court, but the decision to do so would be made by a neutral judge on an individual basis after hearing arguments from both the prosecution and defense.
Bulk-rate justice for our young people is no justice at all, especially when it jeopardizes their safety and ours. Perhaps this year, with a Republican governor supporting reforms and a Democrat carrying the legislation, bipartisanship can help create a fairer and more effective approach to youth crime in Maryland.
Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute. Marc Schindler is a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center. Both organizations are based in Washington.