Keep kids out of adult court

At a New Year's Eve party at a Baltimore home last year, several adults fired guns into the air. When police arrived, they arrested three adults and a 17-year-old I'll call Bernard. Never in trouble with the law before, Bernard was charged as an adult and held in adult jail until his family could produce bail.

Like many states during the 1990s, Maryland passed "tough-on-crime" laws that automatically send many teenagers, like Bernard, into the adult criminal justice system. These laws were based on fear — fear of juvenile "super-predators," a popular notion at the time — and fanned by occasional high-profile crimes committed by kids.

Nearly a decade later, the super-predator concept has been debunked, and states are starting to roll back these punitive, ineffective laws. Maryland should join this movement and stop automatically charging youths as adults.

Bernard was one of the lucky ones. He pleaded with the judge to send him to juvenile court, where he was required to get a job or be in school. He is now living with his mother, working, staying out of trouble and re-enrolled in school.

He was not a super-predator. He was just a kid.

In Maryland, there are 33 crimes for which youths may be charged as adults, everything from murder to conspiracy to commit assault. Juvenile court judges also can steer 15-year-olds to the adult system for any offense.

These laws are counterproductive and ineffective, according to a new report by the Just Kids Partnership to End Automatic Prosecution of Youth as Adults, composed of Community Law in Action, the Public Justice Center and United Parents of Incarcerated Children and Youth. The partnership found that most Baltimore City youths who were charged as adults either had their cases sent to the juvenile court system or had them dismissed outright. These cases should have originated in the juvenile court system, not the adult justice system, which does not offer rehabilitative services and often returns kids to the community hardened by their experiences in adult jails and prisons. According to national research, lack of rehabilitative services means youths leaving adult jails and prisons are more likely to commit crimes than those who spent time in the juvenile justice system.

One Baltimore mother described her 15-year-old son as humble, helpful and jolly — before being held in adult jail for nearly two years on a charge that was eventually dropped. Now, she says, "Jail has turned him into a monster. He doesn't even find a reason to smile."

We should return discretion to the juvenile court to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. There, it is presumed that a youth is in the juvenile court's jurisdiction unless and until a judge decides otherwise. Youth should be charged as adults only after a determination by the state that rehabilitative intervention services would be ineffective.

About 1,250 youths are charged as adults every year in Maryland, about 1,000 as the result of the automatic charging laws. The Just Kids Partnership tracked 152 Baltimore cases that began between January and June of 2009 and found:

• 68 percent of youths charged as adults are either transferred back to the juvenile system or have their cases dismissed.

• A child is likely to spend almost five months in adult jail before he has a hearing to consider his request to be sent to the juvenile system.

• Only 10 percent of youths charged as adults receive sentences in adult prisons.

• Thirteen cases have yet to be resolved as of August, meaning those youths have been held in adult jail at least 16 months without any rehabilitative services or final judgment.

Youth offenders should be placed in appropriate settings. Researchers have determined that numerous evidence-based juvenile intervention programs, such as Family Functional Therapy and community-based programs, produce favorable returns on investment. Moreover, better treatment opportunities should be available for older teens in the juvenile system so that judges are not inclined to send them to the adult system because there are no programs in the juvenile system that can help them.

Many of the concerns detailed in our report were raised nearly a decade ago by the Maryland Commission on Juvenile Justice Jurisdiction. Today, only minimal steps have been taken in response to the commission's recommendations.

When we fail to protect youths by making sure that they get services they need to lead productive lives, we are failing ourselves. We should help them, if for no other reason than doing better by them will make our communities safer.

John Nethercut is executive director of the Public Justice Center. His e-mail is Terry F. Hickey is founder and executive director of Community Law in Action Inc.

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