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Leaving some behind

THERE ARE undoubtedly kids accused of crimes so serious that they should face trial as adults. But it is questionable at best that all the 1,200 or so youngsters who are automatically waived into adult courts each year deserve that fate.

For juveniles, being tried as an adult usually means waiting for trial in an adult jail that isn't set up to offer the counseling or treatment or, sometimes, schooling that the state requires. If found guilty, teens serve their terms in adult prisons that are similarly ill-equipped for them.

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And if they are found not guilty or charges are eventually dropped? Consider the 16-year-old held in the Cecil County jail for six months in 1998, long after police suspected that DNA evidence was lacking and had found a more likely suspect, who later pleaded guilty. While in jail, the teen was raped and stabbed. He later sued the county, claiming that police denied him access to a lawyer, lied to him, told him what to say and took advantage of his learning impairments.

Juveniles in adult jails are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those held in juvenile facilities, according to a study by Columbia University. They are eight times more likely to commit suicide, according to Justice Department research. While trying to keep the community safe by incarcerating its youths, the state shouldn't put the youths themselves at further risk.

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Other studies suggest that these kids are more likely to be rearrested when they finally do return to their communities. A review of New York and New Jersey cases of juveniles accused of robbery found that 76 percent of those prosecuted in criminal court were rearrested, compared with 67 percent of those processed in juvenile court. An eight-year review of 5,000 cases in Florida found that juveniles committed to adult detention were more likely to reoffend, to reoffend earlier and to commit more and more-serious subsequent offenses than those who stayed on the juvenile side.

If the goal is to change behavior or to make society safer by reducing crime, the current method simply isn't working.

Sending more kids to adult prisons isn't the answer. Maryland should consider revising the statutes that require children to be automatically waived into adult court based solely on what level of crime they are charged with; the facts don't support the current system.


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