The Maryland Senate is weighing legislation that would shield from the public the names and photographs of youths who are criminally charged as adults until a judge has determined whether the case should be moved to juvenile court.
Under the bill, which has been approved by the House of Delegates, juveniles charged as adults would receive some of the same protections as those charged in the juvenile system: their names, and any photographs and videos, would remain confidential. The information would be made public if a judge decides that he or she should be tried as an adult.
Currently, police agencies often release such information on juveniles charged as adults, and their names and other information appear in public court records. But judges often transfer those cases to juvenile court, where the young defendants face lighter sentences and the focus is on rehabilitation.
In Maryland, defendants under the age of 18 can be charged as adults with certain more serious offenses, such as murder and armed robbery.
“What was happening is that you have these juveniles who were alleged to have committed crimes and were not getting the same protections,” said Del. Charles Sydnor III, who represents Baltimore County and is the bill’s lead sponsor. “You’re watching the news and you are seeing these young faces on there, and you are wondering what did it add to the story?”
Sydnor said he noticed recent news coverage of four juveniles who were charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at gunpoint after she got off a bus in West Baltimore on Feb. 6. Baltimore police on Feb. 12 released to the media and posted to the department’s Facebook page two pictures from surveillance video, asking for the public’s help in identifying two of the suspects. The department later released the names and photographs of three 14-year-old boys who were each charged as adults with first- and second-degree rape, which carries up to a life sentence.
The teens’ cases are still pending, and could be moved to the juvenile court system.
A fourth suspect, who has been publicly identified only as a 12-year-old boy, is charged with similar offenses in the juvenile system. The disposition of juvenile cases is not public.
“I wanted to ensure that one of the principles of our juvenile justice system is that you are able to rebuild children that have had some issues in the past,” Sydnor said.
He added that these cases are often covered by the media, or posted to social media, and that these children are unable to distance themselves from the cases later because the information continues to turn up in Google searches, Facebook posts or tweets, he said. He noted that even if cases have moved to juvenile court, the damage to reputations has been done.
Baltimore City had the highest number of Circuit Court cases that were transferred to the juvenile system (179), followed by Prince George’s County (65), and Baltimore County (60), according to Maryland Department of Juvenile Services 2018 fiscal year data. There were 388 such cases statewide.
An Abell Foundation report last year evaluating juvenile arrests in Baltimore found the percentage of juvenile cases charged in adult court for serious crimes that were transferred back to the juvenile court has increased — from 19 percent in 2013 to 67 percent in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017, there were 1,069 cases where juveniles were charged as adults, with 43 percent of these cases eventually transferred back to juvenile court, the report said.
The decision to transfer the case rests with the judge, who considers a defendant’s age, mental and physical condition, their amenability to treatment, the nature of the offense and public safety. Two judges were responsible for a majority of youth transfers back to juvenile court in Baltimore, the Abell report found. Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert Kershaw granted transfers in 100 percent of requests, and Circuit Judge Stephen J. Sfekas granted 93 percent, the report said.
William Katcef, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County and a member of the Maryland State’s Attorney Association, opposed the bill at a hearing in January. The association has opposed the bill.
Katcef noted that only juveniles accused of serious offenses are charged as adults. “It’s been the policy of the General Assembly that those type of offenses when committed by 16- or 17-year-olds effectively says that those juveniles have emancipated themselves from the juvenile population and are to be presumptively tried as adults.”
He also expressed concern about defendants who aren’t confined until trial and maybe don’t comply with the terms of their release, fail to make a court appearance or are otherwise unaccounted for. He said police should have the ability to disseminate their picture and information to help police locate them. The bill does permit police departments to release information if a teen charged as an adult has escaped custody before a waiver hearing has been held.
Melanie Shapiro, the director of Juvenile Justice Policy at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, spoke in support of the bill. Sixteen-year-olds can be charged as adults for 33 offenses, but the majority of youths have their cases waived down to juvenile court, she said.
“Once a child is charged as an adult, at that point of initial arrest, both commercial and social media have access to the images, the names, dates of birth and other identifying information from law enforcement,” she said.