Five years after Jabriera Handy was charged with murdering her own grandmother, the 22-year-old sits on a statewide task force that assesses how criminal offenses committed by juveniles are handled in Maryland.
At 16 years old, the slim young woman was accused of killing 69-year-old Eunice Taylor. She spent 11 months in the Baltimore City Detention Center for a crime for which she was never convicted.
Handy is not alone.
More than two-thirds of all youths whose cases originate in the adult criminal justice system in Maryland are either transferred to the juvenile justice system or have the charges against them dismissed, according to Kara Aanenson, a member of the Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction and director of advocacy initiatives for the Just Kids Partnership.
The task force was established by the General Assembly last year to examine current law and review best practices for handling offenses committed by youth.
“There’s 33 … offenses that get a youth automatically charged as an adult in Maryland,” Aanenson said. For example, offenses like first- and second-degree murder, firearm violations, carjacking and armed robbery always originate in adult court.
“Our big concern is that kids are getting put in this adult system where they’re more likely to be victimized, they’re more likely to hurt themselves or someone else, they’re more likely to be victimized by guards, when a majority of the kids are actually coming back to the juvenile system,” Aanenson said.
Most youths wait up to an average of four months for a decision to be made about their case, she said. But Handy spent almost a year in the Baltimore jail, notorious for a violent inmate gang and recent allegations of prison guard corruption.
Handy candidly acknowledges that she had a “push and shove thing” in 2008 that resulted in her grandmother having a fatal heart attack.
“She was standing like really close to me,” said Handy, who was raised by her grandparents since infancy and considers herself her grandmother’s daughter. “And she kept pushing and shoving me and smacking my face, and told me to go, but I was, like, ‘no.’ I kind of tried to get her off of me and shoved her.”
Handy, 5 feet 6 inches tall and only 97 pounds at the time, was arguing with Taylor over the pictures that were hanging on the wall in the Northeast Baltimore home.
“[My younger brother] came and got me and said Bri, just leave, and that’s what I did — I left,” Handy said. She added that reports saying her brother had to pull her off of her grandmother are untrue.
“I went to my neighbor’s because my grandmother was the type of person that when she was angry with you she didn’t want you touching her stuff.”
Two hours later, Handy saw police car and ambulance lights at her grandparents’ house.
“I was basically thinking to myself, ‘Here grandma go again, she want to be playing games, but I don’t have time to be playing games,’” she said laughing at herself.
That mid-October night Handy was taken to the Baltimore City Police Department’s Homicide Unit. She was charged with second-degree murder, first-degree assault and second-degree assault.
“I really didn’t want to believe it; I thought that the police were trying to scare me into saying I did something wrong,” she said. “I just wanted to see for myself if [my grandmother] was really gone; was I never going to talk to her again?”
After the arraignment the following night, Handy was sent home with her mother until further investigation. About a month later there was a warrant out for her arrest.
“The state’s attorney’s office and the police department were trying to decide how they were going to charge the case,” said David Addison, Handy’s juvenile jurisdiction public defender who suggested she turn herself in. “Honestly, it was a case that should have not been charged the way that it ultimately was charged.”
Nearly a month after her grandmother’s death and just four days after Handy’s 17th birthday, she was admitted to the Baltimore City Detention Center. Upon arrival she was placed in solitary quarantine while it was determined if she was a threat to the other teenage girls in the prison’s juvenile dorm.
“I was like pleading with them, like please, let me out of here, I need civilization. I can’t be in this little box 24/7,” Handy said.
Two weeks later, she was transferred downstairs to the juvenile dorm where she spent the next 11 months.
“My experience was awful …. all the smells, all the noises … I showered with a woman twice my age, I witnessed acts that I think no child should witness. I seen a man bleeding out on the floor — I don’t know if he was dead or alive. I spent 36 days in a cell by myself with no adult contact at all, and it’s just no place for a child,” Handy said matter-of-factly.
“When one person would do something the whole jail would get in trouble for it; the food, not having that support, or family coming to visit me, everybody else getting five or six letters and I’m not getting any.”
Handy, one of seven children, bluntly said only one sister visited her the whole year, because most of her family considered her a murderer.
And so did the other juveniles.
“When you walk through everybody’s staring at you and pointing at you, and saying you should be ashamed of yourself even though they don’t really know what happened … I was a high-profile case, so I was on the news, and a lot of times what happens it the correctional officers gossip and tell the juveniles,” she said.
According to Handy, the other girls used to torment her and list off different ways she could have killed her grandmother.
“Because I was a quiet person and because I had went through so much prior to coming there, I always cried,” Handy said.
She said when someone cries in jail, it encourages other inmates to harass them.
“They didn’t want me to use the phone at a certain time, or they tried to stop me from getting my shower, or if a bed was available and somebody wanted to move there they were able to move there before I was.”
Handy was also put in the solitary confinement unit, made up of small cement cells the size of a bathroom, three times — once for over a month when she was only supposed to be there for two weeks.
One time, Handy said, she was committed for hiding from a correctional officer that didn’t feel like playing games that day. The other two times were for fighting with another juvenile who thought Handy had stolen her juice.
Throughout Handy’s time in jail, three transfer hearings took place. Two different Baltimore circuit judges rejected her request to send the case to juvenile court because of prior school suspensions for misbehavior, according to Addison.
But on Nov. 2, 2009, more than a year after her grandmother’s death, Court of Special Appeals Judge Shirley M. Watts accepted the transfer. Handy was allowed to re-enter the juvenile system if she pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was committed to a juvenile treatment facility in western Pennsylvania. She completed its program in about 7 months.
Today, in addition to her role on the state task force, Handy lives in Baltimore with her 11-month-old daughter and works part-time at the Just Kids Partnership, which aims to stop the automatic persecution of youth charged as adults. She has also served as a national spokeswoman for the organization and the Campaign for Youth Justice for the past three years.