ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — The percentage of Baltimore youths charged as adults and then transferred to juvenile court has more than doubled since 2014, according to data from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
This is partly the result of a 2013 Juvenile Services policy, which ended the practice of holding Baltimore youths charged as adults in adult facilities.
The 2013 policy was then broadened in 2015, when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed House Bill 618 into law, ending the practice statewide of holding juveniles in adult facilities, with some exceptions.
These laws were celebrated by many advocacy groups, whose support helped get them passed.
“The fact that youth automatically charged as adults are getting their cases transferred down to the juvenile system is a good thing,” said Christina Williams, director of public policy for Community Law In Action, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that advocates for community change.
“It means that youth, who are often coming into the justice system with years of trauma, can receive services more quickly that will assist in rehabilitating them,” she said.
The rapid increase of youths being transferred to juvenile court was a point of tension at a legislative hearing, held in Annapolis Sept. 12, to address violence in Baltimore.
Fewer than 40 percent of youths charged as adults in Baltimore were transferred to the juvenile court system in 2014; that has risen to about 90 percent thus far this year, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told the legislative panel last month.
“It’s an inexplicable change,” state Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, who was at the hearing, told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service. “These are people whose offenses were serious enough to be charged in adult court.”
On any given day, about 1,200 youths were held in adult prison nationwide at the end of 2013, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative focused on ending the practice of incarcerating youths in adult prisons.
The number of youths charged in Maryland has been on the decline in recent years.
In Maryland, there were 1,542 juveniles charged as adults in 2014, decreasing to 798 in 2015, according to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
In 2015, 185 juveniles statewide who were charged as adults were then transferred to juvenile court and held in juvenile detention centers; of those, 116 were from the city of Baltimore. In 2016, out of the 318 juveniles in Maryland charged as adults and then transferred, 156 were from the city of Baltimore, according to the state’s Department of Juvenile Services.
A number of factors led to the 2013 policy, including concerns that the Baltimore City Detention Center, where the youths were held, was in violation of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, said Rebecca Wagner, executive director of the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth.
The detention center violated the “youthful inmate standard,” which states that people younger than 18 in adult facilities should be housed separately from adult inmates.
The standard also mandates that prison officials should maintain “sight and sound separation” between youths and adults when outside of housing, said Gerry Shields, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“This was a problem that had to be solved,” said Wagner.
The Baltimore City Detention Center closed in August of 2015.
A new $35 million youth detention center in Baltimore opened in September of this year. The facility can hold up to 60 juveniles — 50 males and 10 females.
The two most common offenses for juveniles charged as adults in Baltimore are armed robbery and handgun possession, according to Juvenile Services.
Of the 730 youths charged as adults from 2012 to 2017 in Baltimore, 44 percent were armed robbery (324 cases) and 24 percent (177 cases) were handgun possession, according to Juvenile Services data.
In Maryland, teenagers ages 14 and 15 are automatically charged as adults for serious offenses that, if committed by adults, would be a crime punishable by life in prison, said Melanie Shapiro, director of juvenile justice policy for the Office of the Public Defender. These serious offenses include murder and rape.
Teenagers ages 16 and 17 are charged as adults if they commit one of 33 offenses, including murder, kidnapping, robbery, first-degree assault and manslaughter, said Shapiro.
But there is some discretion: An older teenager charged with first-degree assault would go to adult court while a teenager charged with second-degree assault would most likely go to juvenile court, she said.
Shapiro and others at the public defender’s office have been pushing for all juveniles, regardless of the crimes they have committed, to start in the juvenile system rather than be initially charged as adults.
Currently, public defenders have to request waiver hearings to try and get youth cases moved to juvenile court, said Shapiro.
At these hearings, the judge considers five factors—the youth’s age, the mental and physical condition of the youth, any threat to public safety, the nature of the offense, and the youth’s amenability to treatment programs—when deciding whether to transfer the youth to juvenile court.
“Many of these crimes that youth are being held without bail for are extremely violent,” said Gavin Patashnick, chief of the juvenile division of the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. “Public safety is a factor that the courts take into consideration when they develop bail or incarceration.”
Shapiro testified at the legislative hearing last month that “providing court-involved youth evidence-based community programs yield better outcomes than incarceration.”
She told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service that juveniles who are still connected to their communities and families—through community-based treatment like house arrest—do better than when they are isolated and incarcerated.
“Incarceration disconnects youth from their schools, their families, their communities,” said Shapiro. “It has long-term consequences for employment opportunities, housing and recidivism.”
And while most children naturally age out of delinquent behavior, putting children in detention centers “actually interrupts that aging out process and causes more harm,” said Shapiro.
But Patashnick of the state’s attorney’s office said he believes juveniles charged with violent crimes can be a danger to society if they are not incarcerated.
“If somebody is a victim of a violent armed carjacking or if someone is the victim of a shooting,” he said, “…it takes a lot of faith…it takes a lot to believe that the public safety isn’t compromised if that person is put on an ATD (alternatives to detention).”
Charging a young person as an adult “presumes there’s something about the charge itself that wipes away a child’s adolescence,” said Tara Huffman, director of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program at the Open Society Institute of Baltimore, a foundation that address societal issues in Baltimore.
A concern for many advocacy groups is that some Baltimore juveniles are still being charged as adults.
The juvenile justice system, Huffman said, was created “behind the recognition that children are not little adults.”
“(Young children) are still growing and thanks to brain imaging and MRIs, we can now say that the young person’s brain does not look like the adult brain,” she said.
Huffman said that she believes there are times youths should be charged as adults, but that the decision should be made only “after a complete review and evaluation of that child, the child’s circumstances and the charge all put together.”
There are benefits to being in the juvenile system.
“Youth in detention and treatment centers receive six hours of education from Maryland State Department of Education five days a week,” Audra Harrison, spokeswoman for the Department of Juveniles Services, wrote in an email. Medical and mental care and behavioral management programs are available in both juvenile and adult facilities.
Ultimately though, “a youth in the system is considered to be receiving treatment,” said Wagner, “while an adult is being punished.”