ANNAPOLIS – What’s the best way to deal with young criminal offenders? Should they be punished? Or should authorities try to turn around their lives?
Those are the questions being debated at the Statehouse this legislative session as Maryland’s juvenile crime rate continues to rise.
From Prince George’s County, where a high school honor student killed another for not following gang rules, to Charles County, where four teenagers kicked another teen to death because of a racial slur, the state has been touched by violent juvenile crimes.
Department of Juvenile Justice statistics provide the backdrop:
* Juvenile arrests involving crimes against people increased 64 percent from 1990 to 1995 — from 7,306 to 11,952.
* The department anticipates handling 65,040 offenders in 1998, a 12 percent increase from 1996.
* The number of murders by juveniles was 20 in 1990. In 1995, it had increased to 84.
* Crimes against people have slightly increased as a share of overall juvenile arrests — from 19 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 1995.
The Juvenile Crime Task Force, which includes the Department of Juvenile Justice and the lieutenant governor, wants to stop young offenders from becoming more violent with early intervention when minors first enter the system.
“The best approach is to make sure the system responds immediately,” Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said at a news conference this week. “If we don’t, it sends a very clear message that it doesn’t matter.”
Juvenile Justice has requested $118 million for fiscal year 1998 to implement restorative justice, a concept that requires offenders to repair or restore the harm they have caused to victims and communities. The money would be used to launch offender work crews, teen courts and provide drug treatment, among other initiatives. Sanctions would increase in severity for repeat offenders.
The department has endorsed two bills this session to implement the concept. One modifies juvenile justice statues to include restorative justice goals, and the other opens juvenile court hearings for crimes that would be felonies if committed by an adult.
But this legislation is too tame for some lawmakers.
In a version of the “three strikes and out” laws sweeping the nation, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, has sponsored a bill requiring offenders convicted of three separate violent crimes at age 16 or older to be automatically charged as an adult on their fourth crime.
A bill by Del. Phillip D. Bissett, R-Anne Arundel, would lower the age at which juveniles would be considered adults by the courts — from 18 to 16 for all crimes and to 15 for violent crimes.
Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, R-Frederick, has sponsored a bill that lowers the age of eligibility for the death penalty from 18 to 16.
“The state of Maryland needs to recognize that a 16-year-old can commit cold-blooded murder in a pitiless manner with utter disregard for human life,” said Sen. Richard Colburn, R- Dorchester, a co-sponsor. “We need to send a signal that we’re going to get tough on crime in the state of Maryland.”
But some child advocates and legislators are skeptical that these measures would solve the problem. They say the issue is larger than unruly kids.
“Why don’t we look at what we can do while they’re young?” asked Susan Leviton, founder of Advocates for Children and Youth. “Get them education and get their parents jobs.”
Added Del. Rushern Baker III, D-Prince George’s, “We don’t want to make decisions that make our kids hardened criminals. The majority of the kids and adults going to prison are going to be back on the street.”
Stuart Simms, secretary of Juvenile Justice, is hesitant about proposals to send more juveniles into the adult system.
The department is studying juveniles already in adult prison facilities, looking at such issues as housing, special programming for minors and cost effectiveness. The study won’t be completed until after the General Assembly session ends, Simms said.
“We don’t disagree, I think, in terms in dealing sternly with violent juveniles offenders,” Simms said. “We’re not sure whether or not these measure are going to affect anything.”
There are 109 juveniles housed in the Department of Corrections, said Leonard Sipes, department spokesman. And there are 1,200 inmates who are no longer juveniles, but were convicted when they were minors.
David Altschuler, a principal researcher at John Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies, said research has shown that laws sending juveniles to adult court aren’t effective. He said the Maryland bills are indicative of what’s happening around the country.
“They’re kind of a knee-jerk response to what’s regarded as a problem,” Altschuler said. He questioned why the state, with “a quick change of statute [would] promise that the adult system will do for juveniles what it can’t even do for adults.” -30-