Better Ways to Handle Youths Charged as Adults


In January 2013, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration announced that it will not build a 180-bed new jail for youths who are prosecuted as adults in Baltimore. Instead, it will spend up to $30 million to renovate an existing adult facility that would hold 60 youths, which is more than enough space to house the declining number of youths who are charged as adults in the city.

The decision to not build a new jail is a good one, but it is not the end-goal of youth advocates. With a growing body of research showing that the prosecution of youths as adults does more harm than good, advocates and concerned Baltimore residents will continue to promote policy reforms that will end or limit the practice of prosecuting youths as adults; create a juvenile justice system that relies more on proven community-based treatment and services and less on incarceration; and reinvest public funding that the state saves by incarcerating fewer into proven programs and services for Maryland’s youth.

Maryland’s practice of prosecuting youths as adults falls heaviest on African-Americans, particularly black males. In Baltimore City, youths charged as adults and held at the city’s adult jail are 99 percent African-American even though they comprise only 61% of the city’s youth population. This is true even though there is no credible evidence that African-American youths commit more crimes than their white peers. Sadly, the vestiges of racially segregated youth prisons that existed in Maryland in the 1800s continue to this day.

Maryland can end or limit the practice of prosecuting youth as adults without compromising public safety by:

* Repealing or limiting the practice of prosecuting youth as adults. Instead, all young people who are accused of a crime would have their cases heard in the more appropriate juvenile justice system. A juvenile court judge would then have the discretion to send a case to the adult criminal court after considering the arguments of both the prosecuting and defense attorneys – an option that is currently available in Maryland;

*Removing all youth from adult jails and instead housing young people who require detention prior to their trials in youth detention centers. This is the practice in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Maryland should follow the lead of its neighboring states;

*Limiting youth detention to only those young people who are charged with serious offenses and pose a clear public safety risk; youth charged with non-violent, minor offenses should remain in the community as they await their trial dates. According to the Data Resource Guide Fiscal Year 2012 by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, statewide almost 50% of youth who were held in youth detention facilities prior to trial had been accused of non-violent misdemeanor offenses;

*Reducing the number of youth who are held in youth detention facilities as they await placement in a residential facility (a youth prison) by utilizing more community-based programs for young people who committed misdemeanor offenses and are not public safety risks. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services found that in fiscal year 2012, 57% of youth who were held in its detention centers waiting to be placed in a residential facility were found guilty of committing misdemeanor offenses and, finally

*Reinvesting the money saved as a result of incarcerating fewer youth in community-based programs and services for youth, such as alternatives to youth detention and commitment, vocational and recreational programs, and therapeutic programs.

Carrying out all of these reforms will offer Maryland’s youth more opportunities to succeed and undoubtedly reduce the disproportionate confinement of African-American youth in Maryland’s adult jails and youth facilities.

The reforms are doable, but will require political will and support from all agencies and communities that touch the lives of youth.

The vision is clear. Now, all Marylanders must get to work.

Monique Dixon is director of criminal and juvenile justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

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Better Ways to Handle Youths Charged as Adults

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