The death of a Baltimore County police officer is terrible, but it's not reason to question the idea of the juvenile justice system

There’s plenty of reason to question the series of decisions by the justice system that allowed 16-year-old Dawnta Harris to be in Perry Hall Monday when police say he drove a stolen Jeep into Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio, fatally injuring her. We are still learning more details about his history, but it isn’t merely the benefit of hindsight that leads to the conclusion that he should not have been on home detention — or, as it turned out, AWOL from it — on the day of Officer Caprio’s death. That said, we should resist the urge to use this case to call the whole concept of the juvenile justice system into question.

The district court judge who presided over Mr. Harris’ bail review hearing Tuesday called him a “one-man crime wave” and questioned whether any juvenile facility could hold him. Defense attorney Warren Brown, who has publicly volunteered to defend him, wrote on his Facebook page that “some have already called for his literal lynching,” leading to a string of comments that proved his point, with some demanding that the teen be executed and others wishing for him to be brutalized in prison.

We should take a step back and look at what we know and what we don’t. Police and prosecutors say Mr. Harris had stolen three cars during the winter. In March, while awaiting trial on those charges, he was sent to a non-secure juvenile facility in Montgomery County — essentially a group home — but prosecutors say he walked out and stole another car. He was arrested, and on March 13, officials from the Department of Juvenile Services picked him up and returned him to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. While his cases were being sorted out, he spent some time at another shelter in Catonsville. He failed to appear in court on April 16. The next day, he was arrested and, per DJS’ recommendation, was sent back to the secure Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center.

On May 10, the prosecutor, public defender and judge held a conference to discuss his case (DJS was not involved) and decided to send him home with an ankle bracelet. He stayed in compliance with the terms of his detention for a few days, but on May 14th he disappeared. He didn’t cut off his ankle bracelet, but those devices don’t have GPS capabilities, and all authorities can tell is that he wasn’t at home. DJS officials attempted to find him, but they reported in a hearing on May 18th that their efforts had been unsuccessful and recommended that he be sent back to the secure juvenile facility if and when police found him. The court made no decision that day but stayed the matter until May 22 — the day Mr. Harris would be in a very different court on very different charges: the murder of a police officer.

Because of the circumstances, we know more about Mr. Harris’ record than is typical for juveniles, but we don’t and may never know all the details of what went into that string of events. But on its face, it’s absurd that in March, a juvenile court found Mr. Harris’ alleged offenses serious enough that he should be removed from his home and placed in a detention facility, yet when he left and was arrested again, then failed to appear for a hearing, the court thought home detention would be sufficient. The fact that he would subsequently go missing should have been entirely predictable.

Is Mr. Harris a cold-blooded killer who should be locked away for the rest of his life, or is he a kid who got in trouble, made bad decisions and panicked when Officer Caprio confronted him? We leave it to State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger and Mr. Brown and fellow defense attorney J. Wyndal Gordon to make those arguments.

But whatever the truth may be, we should not draw from this crime the idea that all juvenile offenders are irredeemable monsters or that keeping them out of adult courts and prisons is a foolish indulgence. No question, the juvenile justice system is imperfect, and we always need to be evaluating whether it serves its purpose and the cause of public safety. This year House and Senate both passed versions of a bill by Del. Luke Clippinger of Baltimore to set up a review of the system’s resources and outcomes, along the lines of the process that led up to the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, but the General Assembly ran out of time to enact it. Clearly, we should move forward with that effort next year. But what we need to remember is this: Minors are different from adults. Their level of responsibility for their actions is different from that of adults. Their potential for rehabilitation is different than that of adults, and the criminal justice system needs to treat them differently than adults. This tragedy and any mistakes that led up to it don’t change that fact.

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