Juvenile justice advocates want state legislators to change laws mandating that minors accused of certain crimes be automatically charged as adults, saying Maryland outpaces virtually every state in the country in sending juvenile offenders to adult prisons and jails.
During a Tuesday legislative workgroup, advocates and people who were charged as minors called on state legislators to begin working on solutions to correct what they call an injustice in the state juvenile justice system.
Reginald Betts, a 40-year-old Maryland native who spent more than eight years in prison after he was convicted of carjacking when he was 16, said it’s imperative that Maryland tackle the issue. The state traumatizes youth when it places them in adult facilities and then stigmatizes them after they’re released, he said, contributing to a cycle that can be difficult to break.
“It’s not just the young people who get locked up in prison who get failed, but it’s the community at-large that gets failed,” Betts said. “Part of that is because there is frankly little expectation that young people can be beyond what they were in whatever moment of crisis they found themselves that led to incarceration.”
Currently, Maryland law requires that juveniles charged with one of 33 offenses be transferred automatically to adult court.
The issue is one of many being debated by the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, which was formed in 2019 to examine issues with Maryland’s juvenile justice system.
According to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for juvenile justice reform, Maryland is one of only nine states to send more than 200 minors to adult court each year.
Betts, who was a member of former President Barack Obama’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and has received national attention for his poetry and writing, said his convictions followed him after he was released and made it difficult to transition into civilian life.
Michael Singleton, a Baltimore man who said he faced adult weapons charges at 17 after he illegally obtained a gun and accidentally shot his friend in the leg, said he was fortunate that his father was a local attorney who helped him navigate the system and get the case moved back to juvenile court.
But he said he saw friends struggle in that same system, including a friend who’d been kicked out of college after he was charged with a felony.
“It’s a lot of kids that get caught up in these situations and it could go in a couple of different ways for them,” Singleton said. “Had I not been able to get my dad to get me a lawyer ... my whole life would’ve been different.”
Whether the issue will be taken up in the state legislature has yet to be seen. The General Assembly did pass laws during this past legislative session to reform juvenile sentencing laws to allow for more avenues of release and prohibit sentences of life without the possibility of parole, but legislators removed language in another bill that would have prohibited minors under the age of 13 from being charged with crimes.
Mike Zabel, a Pennsylvania state legislator who is the co-chair of its Juvenile Justice Task Force, was invited to talk about that state’s experiences. He said they found that Black youths were effected disproportionately by transfers to adult courts.
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“What we were seeing was ... just about across every category [was] that Black boys were more likely to be referred to adult prosecution. They were more likely to be given carceral sentences,” he said.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, a Democrat, raised the concern that changing state law could create situations where youths accused of particularly violent crimes are not being treated as potential public safety risks.
“What would you do with a 15-year-old who kills his father, his mother [and] his two brothers and is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds with a 125 IQ?” he asked.
Marcy Mistrett, a senior fellow at The Sentencing Project, countered that juvenile judges still would have the jurisdiction to remand a defendant who is a minor to adult court if he deems it necessary and that the proposed change would give those judges more discretion over such decisions.
“No one is suggesting taking that part away,” Mistrett said.
The discussion is expected to continue in the coming weeks as V. Glenn Fueston Jr., the council’s chairman, said he plans to schedule another meeting to further discuss the issues raised during Tuesday’s hearing.
The council is required to submit a report on its recommendations to the General Assembly and the governor by Oct. 1.