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Maryland’s highest court opens door for juveniles who can be rehabilitated to avoid adult prison system

Maryland’s highest court has ruled that judges must weigh whether juveniles can be rehabilitated before assigning them to adult courts, offering new hope for a Baltimore County man and potentially hundreds of others sent to prison in their teens.

The Court of Appeals ruling centered on the case of Howard Jimmy Davis, who had a troubled life and scrapes with the law before being charged at the age of 16 with assault with a deadly weapon. A state psychologist called him “our best student” in a juvenile school program, and said Davis “would greatly benefit from involvement in the juvenile justice system where he can receive the necessary treatment for his academic and emotional struggles.”

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The psychologist, arguing to move Davis to Juvenile Court, also cited his difficult upbringing, which included seeing a man shot when he was around 8 years old, losing his uncle and a cousin to gun violence when he was 11, and having run-ins with the law starting when he was as young as 9.

None of that swayed a Circuit Court judge, who said he deserved to stay in the adult system because “he has committed ... a very grave violent offense” and was “a considerable threat to public safety.” The judge sentenced Davis to 10 years.

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The Court of Appeals ruling will send Davis, now 20 and in prison for three years, back to a lower court to argue for a new sentence.

Writing for the state’s highest court, Judge Alan Wilner wrote that the judge overseeing the case did not properly take into account whether Davis would have been amenable to rehabilitation and education programs available through the Department of Juvenile Services. It overturns a ruling by the state’s Court of Special Appeals.

“With an eye both toward the welfare of the child and public safety, which, in our view are inter-related, the court needs to make an assessment of whether it is likely that the child would benefit from an available DJS program better than he or she would from anything likely to be available in the adult system and whether that would reduce the likelihood of recidivism and make the child a more productive law-abiding person,” Wilner wrote.

The ruling sends the case back to Baltimore County Circuit Court for a hearing on whether the case should be moved to Juvenile Court based on the new standard.

The decision has implications far beyond Davis’ case, legal experts said.

“This is a widespread problem,” said Jennifer Egan, chief attorney for the Public Defender’s Office’s Juvenile Division. “I don’t think the decision that [the Court of Appeals] overturned was an anomaly. I think it was the standard.”

Egan said the Court of Appeals ruling sets a legal standard that will allow her offices and other attorneys to challenge similar cases where judges denied transfers to Juvenile Court in the past five years.

According to the opinion, the unnamed Circuit Court judge did not properly weigh testimony given during a January 2018 court hearing about Davis’ willingness and ability to participate in juvenile treatment programs before denying a motion to transfer the case to Juvenile Court. Davis later entered a conditional guilty plea based on the ruling, but appealed the judge’s decision.

Davis initially faced charges of attempted murder, assault and home invasion after police said he and two other young men broke into a Baltimore County home in March 2017 when Davis was 16.

According to police, the occupants of the home were initially asleep during the break-in and, after they were awoken, a man living there was grazed by a bullet fired from a rifle held by one of the intruders when he grabbed the barrel during a struggle in a bedroom. The man survived and one of the intruders told investigators that Davis fired the shot during the struggle.

Because of the seriousness of the crime, Davis was automatically charged as an adult before his attorney made a motion to have the case transferred to Juvenile Court. Maryland law requires that juveniles accused of 33 types of charges be charged as adults.

As part of that transfer attempt, Department of Juvenile Services case managers reported that while he was awaiting trial at the Charles H. Hickey School, a state juvenile detention facility, Davis participated in individual and group therapy sessions, hadn’t been involved in any incidents, and was “open to individual therapy with mental health staff.”

It was during the January 2018 hearing that the state psychologist testified that a correctional officer at Hickey called Davis “our best student” and said he would benefit from the juvenile system.

However, the judge ruled against the motion, saying that that the nature of the alleged offense “is probably the single most ... concerning factor with regard to whether or not this young man should remain in the adult system” while never addressing whether Davis would be more successful in the state’s juvenile treatment programs.

In the ruling, the judge did not make any substantive comments about Davis’ potential receptiveness to treatment.

“Assessing amenability to treatment requires more than that,” the Court of Appeals opinion reads. “To determine amenability to treatment, the court needs to know what treatment is or will be available to meet the child’s needs and address the child’s problems.”

It added that public safety, while a significant factor, is “not determinative” on whether a case should be sent to Juvenile Court.

Davis’ case comes at a time when advocates are calling to end the state’s practice of automatically charging youths accused of certain crimes as adults.

Maryland is one of only nine states to send more than 200 minors to adult court each year. Detractors say the state forces youths to navigate an adult criminal justice system before their brains are fully developed.

According to Egan, in fiscal year 2019, 641 of 903 children originally charged in adult court in Maryland were not transferred to Juvenile Court.

“That really sets a new precedent of ‘deal with hard evidence’ and not personal feelings, beliefs or the politics that really come to bear,” she said.

She added that the decision could force Department of Corrections officials to participate in more transfer hearings now that a judge must consider how rehabilitation programs in both the adult and juvenile corrections systems could affect a youth defendant.

Nick Moroney, director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent state agency, said charging youths as adults is “not backed either by science or the results.”

“The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) has direct or contracted access to services and treatment for children and young people no matter the level of the charge,” Moroney said in an email. “Confinement with adults also raises the rate of suicide among incarcerated young people. There is little or nothing of a positive nature awaiting children and young people held in adult jails and prisons.”

Court officials hearing Davis’ case also must consider the fact that he is now 20 years old and has spent the past three years in prison.

“The jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court over him will end in less than a year,” Wilner wrote in the Court of Appeals decision. “His physical and mental condition may have changed, and whether he remains a danger to public safety will have to be judged as of now. What has he learned from three years of prison?”

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