WASHINGTON – The number of juveniles tried as adults in Maryland reached a five-year low in 1998, despite laws that were aimed at making it easier to send youths to adult court.
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice said 844 juveniles were charged as adults in 1998, less than 2 percent of the more than 50,000 youths arrested that year. It is the lowest number since 1993 and down sharply from the peak of 2,948 juveniles tried as adults in 1996.
Even with the decline, however, there are 200 to 300 youths in adult jails or detention centers in the state on any given day, according to a report this week that blasted the Maryland’s adult facilities as “inappropriate places for youth.” And the 844 juveniles who were charged as adults in 1998 is still too large, say some.
“It’s very high for a state as small as Maryland where there is only one major city,” said Emilio C. Viano, a public affairs professor at American University. “It’s not a good testimony to how we are dealing with our children.”
In a 169-page report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch slammed jails in Baltimore City and Frederick, Prince George’s, Montgomery and Washington counties that currently house youth. The New York-based organization criticized the deteriorating facilities, the lack of educational resources and the violence that was allowed among inmates, who often mixed with adult inmates.
The 19th-century-era Baltimore City Detention Center was singled out as the worst physical structure and Prince George’s Correctional Center was cited for its lack of educational opportunities for younger detainees. Many of the correctional officers allow the youths to fight, the study said.
Local prison officials vigorously denied the allegations of the report.
Human Rights Watch studied Maryland because it is one of 40 states with laws making it easier for juveniles to go to adult court. In 1994, Maryland expanded the list of offenses that automatically sends juveniles to adult court.
Soon after that, the crime rate among juveniles began to grow, from 48,528 youth arrests in 1994 to 54,965 in 1996. But the number of juveniles tried as adults soared in the same period because of the new laws, jumping from 1,093 youths in adult court in 1994 to 2,948 by 1996, fully 5 percent of juveniles arrested.
Since then, the numbers of overall juvenile crime has dropped slightly, to 53,643 arrests in 1997 and 53,476 in 1998, while the number and percent tried as adults has plummeted. In 1997, there were 1,203 juveniles referred to adult court, or 2 percent of the total. The 844 referred in 1998 was just 1.6 percent of the total.
Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice officials said their tougher stance on defendants in the juvenile courts is at least partly to blame for the fact that fewer youths come back and commit the crimes that could land them in adult court.
“I think to a large extent we’ve been more aggressive about holding kids accountable,” said Juvenile Justice Secretary Gilberto de Jesus. “Now, we make sure our consequences are swift and certain.”
One of those programs requires close monitoring of all defendants, including first-time offenders. The department offers a 90-day supervision for first-time offenders that lets them avoid court if they comply with certain conditions. They also take courses where they learn non-violent methods of resolving problems.
Youths who do go into the adult system do not face the bleak conditions described by Human Rights Watch, officials have said.
The state prison system keeps younger offenders separated from adults, said Robert Gibson, assistant director of research and statistics for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
He said the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown has nearly 3,000 inmates, about 80 of whom are juveniles, while 100 of the 400 inmates at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup are juveniles. When younger offenders turn 18, they are transferred to the adult population of the jails.
“In terms of punishment … when they’re in a prison they’re in a cell, it’s much the same as the adult prison,” said Gibson. “You’ve got to remember that punishment is part of the sentence.”
But there are alternatives to prison that still punish young offenders, said R. Dean Wright, a sociology professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. He suggested home detention and expansion of foster care is better than getting “overly tough on kids.”
But Wright said corrections officials have been focused on prison overcrowding problems for so long that they have not been able to offer “any alternatives (to prison) that have been meaningful.”
“It’s too much of a liability to lose them for the rest of their lives,” he said. The drop in Maryland youths being tried as adults is a great sign, he said, “but we still have a long way to go.”