Maryland’s law requiring youthful offenders accused of heinous crimes to be automatically charged as adults should be repealed, leaving prosecutors discretion to decide whether to pursue long prison sentences for people so young, youth advocates told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Youngsters, regardless of their offense, should not be summarily denied the educational and social benefits the juvenile justice system provides while a determination is made whether they will be tried in juvenile or adult court.
“Jails are not designed to house children,” Nathaniel R. Balis, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee “They were not built with children in mind.”
Balis, who directs the foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group, was joined by representatives of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and the attorney general’s office in briefing the Senate panel on what they called the public policy and public safety pitfalls of automatically treating children as adults in the criminal justice system.
Sen. Jill P. Carter, a committee member, said she plans to sponsor legislation to end the automatic sentencing of children as adults regardless of the crime charged.
“Under the age of 18, we are going to recognize this person as a child,” Carter, D-Baltimore City, said at the briefing.
Under the bill, nothing would bar a prosecutor from charging a child as an adult if the youngster is so incorrigible to be “an exception to the rule” that the juvenile justice system and the services it provides would be beneficial.
But Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, said some crimes are so heinous that perhaps the youthful offender should automatically face an adult charge. He used the example of a 17 year old who kills his parents in cold blood.
“That person walks out of jail when that person turns 21” if found responsible for the crime in juvenile court, said West, a committee member.
Kara Aanenson, DJS’s director of legislation and policy, responded that repealing the automatic charge would still leave prosecutors the discretion to charge and try such violent offenders as adults.
Under current law, youngsters aged 14 and older are automatically charged as adults if they are accused of first-degree murder, first-degree rape or first-degree sex offense. Youngsters 16 and older are automatically charged as adults if accused of a violent crime or handgun violation.
Youngsters may request to be transferred to juvenile court unless they are 16 or older and charged with first-degree murder.
To be transferred, the youngster must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the transfer is in the child’s or society’s best interest.
For a juvenile to be “waived” to adult court, the state must prove it is “more likely than not” that the child is unfit for juvenile rehabilitative services.
Judges may order a youngster charged as an adult to be held in a juvenile detention center rather than an adult facility pending a transfer hearing.
Nick Moroney, who directs the attorney general’s juvenile justice monitoring unit, told the Senate panel that “there are a lot of detrimental effects” on children being charged as adults, including seclusion and the lack of educational facilities if they are held in an adult system.
“Kids there, while they’re not invisible, they’re not really getting services,” Moroney said. “Those facilities are generally not run for kids.”
Aanenson, of DJS, said charging juveniles as adults at the outset is “ineffective and strains resources” by requiring youngsters to spend an average of at least 114 days – roughly the length of a school semester – in the adult system, which does not provide the teaching and family visits available in the juvenile justice system.
According to the DJS, 631 juveniles were automatically charged as adults in fiscal year 2022. Another 112 juveniles were waived to adult court.
Of the juveniles charged as adults, 408 were 17 years old; 295 were 16 years old; 29 were 15; eight were 14; one was 13; and two were 10, the department reported.
Of the juveniles charged as adult, 88.77% were Black and 93.12% were boys, according to the department.
Aanenson called the statistics troubling, saying that “Maryland leads in the incarceration of young men of color.”