Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Bill to end automatic charging of children as adults splits advocates, prosecutors

Steve Lash//February 16, 2023

Bill to end automatic charging of children as adults splits advocates, prosecutors

By Steve Lash

//February 16, 2023

Sen. Jill P. Carter, the measure’s sponsor, says the legislation treats youths in the criminal justice system ‘the same way we treat them in other areas of the law.’ She is shown at an earlier news conference on an unrelated issue. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to repeal Maryland’s law requiring youthful offenders accused of heinous crimes to be automatically charged as adults drew support Thursday from youth advocates but scorn from prosecutors and a victims’ rights attorney.

“It is truly the right policy for Maryland moving forward,” Sen. Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City and the bill’s chief sponsor, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on which she sits. “All this bill does is treat children in the criminal justice system the same way we treat them in other areas of the law.”

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.

Senate Bill 93 would repeal the authority of these youngsters to be automatically charged by expanding the jurisdiction of juvenile court to cover all criminal defendants under 18 regardless of the crime charged. Prosecutors could press the juvenile court for a transfer to criminal court if they can show by a preponderance of the evidence that the offender cannot be rehabilitated through the juvenile court system, taking into account the child’s age, mental and physical condition and amenability treatment.

The juvenile court, in deciding whether to transfer the case to adult court, would also consider the nature of the offense, the child’s participation in it, and the interest of public safety.

Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the juvenile division of the public defender’s office in Baltimore, urged the Senate committee to end the “inhuman” and “racist” policy of automatically charging children in adult court, which occurs most often when the offender is a person of color.

“Start asking why our system is not worthy of our kids,” Egan told the committee.

The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association opposed the repeal, telling the Senate committee that the current system, though flawed, achieves substantial justice.

“It is completely understandable that the movement of youth away from the adult system has garnered nationwide attention and movement in this state,” the association stated in written testimony to the committee.

“That said, the juvenile system in place, which involves multifarious statutes, case law, and rules, is not in any way ready to absorb a complete repeal of automatic adult jurisdiction without substantial changes to statutory procedure and service provision,” the association added. “Public safety would be affected, and some perpetrators of extremely violent crimes would emerge with little to no sense of accountability for their actions or tools to assist in becoming responsible and productive members of society.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said repealing the current system would be “dangerous and misplaced.”

He cited more than a dozen murders by 16 and 17 year olds in recently years that he said were rightfully charged and convicted in adult court rather than begun in juvenile court until the prosecution could argue for their transfer.

These murder convictions included those of then-17 year old “beltway sniper” Lee Boyd Malvo, who killed six people in Montgomery County in 2002, and  16-year-old Dawnta Harris, who was convicted of felony murder for running down Baltimore County police officer Amy Caprio in a stolen vehicle in 2018.

“I have dozens of other heinous crimes committed by juveniles from all over the state whose cases would start in juvenile court,” Shellenberger stated in written testimony.

“With their cases starting in juvenile court they will likely reside in a juvenile facility for a year or more while a waiver hearing that requires a waiver summary can be prepared,” Shellenberger added. “Maryland has a good statutory scheme and it should stay in place.”

Kurt Wolfgang, of the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, praised the current system that “takes serious violent, dangerous offenders and places them in the adult system, the only system that is designed to handle them in a fashion that makes sense.”

“The recent trend to force serious violent offenses into the juvenile justice system  holds tragic unforeseen consequences,” Wolfgang, the center’s executive director, stated in written testimony.

“If you intend to create a world where all juveniles face trial in the juvenile system, fix that system first,” added Wolfgang, an attorney. “Provide for meaningful terms of in-system treatment. Provide for extended supervision and jurisdiction well beyond the age of twenty-one.”

Under current law, youngsters charged as adults 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.

The repeal bill has been dubbed by sponsors as the proposed Youth Equity & Safety, or YES, Act.

The bill has been cross-filed in the House of Delegates. Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, D-Montgomery, is chief sponsor of House Bill 96.



Networking Calendar

Submit an entry for the business calendar