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Maryland tries hundreds of juvenile defendants as adults. One Annapolis bill tries to change that

Matt Bush / WYPR

When Baltimore City resident Jabriera Handy was 16 years old, she got in a fight with her grandmother. A few hours later, her grandmother died of a heart attack, apparently as a result of the fight.

Handy was charged with second-degree murder, second-degree assault and first-degree assault. When teenagers are charged with those crimes in Maryland, they are charged as adults and their cases proceed in the adult court system.

After 11 months in an adult jail, Handy went to court, two days before her 18th birthday. Worried that turning 18 could mean a worse sentence, Handy pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a lower-level charge that sent her case back to the juvenile system.

Handy testified before the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday in support of a bill that would require all cases involving juvenile defendants to begin in juvenile court. Under current Maryland law, there are 33 crimes that automatically send children to adult court. Handy is among a group of advocates who have been trying and failing to change that law for the last 13 years. Those advocates and their allies in the legislature hope that this year’s bill will finally succeed.

“When it comes to the prohibition on children contracting, the prohibition of children working, the prohibition on children's smoking, drinking or voting, the prohibition as of last year on children marrying, we protect children from all of these things because we say you're not ready to do that yet,” Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, told the committee Thursday. “But only in one area of the law do we say, ‘OK, because you are accused of something, because there is a mere allegation against you, we're going to wipe out all this evidence that you're a child — we're not going to treat you as a child.’”

According to data from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, 632 Maryland children were charged with crimes that automatically landed them in adult court. More than a third of those children were charged with illegal gun possession. Other common crimes included carjacking, assault, armed robbery and murder.

In contrast to Maryland, Virginia has only two crimes that automatically land a minor in adult criminal court: murder and aggravated malicious wounding, said Josh Rovner, director of youth justice at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

He said eight states already start all juvenile cases in juvenile court.

“Per capita, only Alabama sends more of its kids into adult court based on the initial charge than we do,” Rovner told lawmakers.

In Maryland, the overwhelming majority — more than 80% — of children automatically charged as adults are Black.

According to Jenny Egan, chief attorney at the Office of the Public Defender’s juvenile division in Baltimore City, there are also stark racial disparities in which cases get transferred back to juvenile court from the adult system.

“Virtually all white defendants have their cases transferred back to juvenile court, where less than half of Black children have their cases transferred back,” Egan said.

When a defendant’s case is tried in juvenile court and they end up in a juvenile detention center, they have access to rehabilitative services tailored for youth.

“If you're getting treatment in juvenile, you have access to an individualized treatment plan that specifically is set to address your particular issues,” Egan said. “Only in the juvenile system do they have access to psychologists, psychiatrists and medical professionals who can diagnose and issue a course of treatment not just for mental health, but for all kinds of issues.”

Children who are charged in adult court and go to an adult prison, on the other hand, are 34% more likely to reoffend than children charged with the same crimes in juvenile court, Egan said.

At Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors from across the state urged the committee to once again reject the bill.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger rattled off a list of people convicted of violent crimes they committed as minors, such as Nicholas Browning, who killed his parents and two brothers when he was 15 years old in 2008, and Benjamin Garris, who was convicted of first-degree murder for a fire he set in 1995 when he was 16.

“These are not children. These are not children. They're committing very adult, very adult crimes,” Shellenberger said.

If the bill passes, prosecutors could still file waivers to try specific cases in adult court. But Shellenberger said that process introduces unnecessary delays, and he questioned whether the Department of Juvenile Services’ existing facilities are secure enough to handle the new population of defendants.

“They would be sitting there for almost a year before they get waived up to adult court if they get waived up,” he said. “You have to make sure that we have secure facilities to hold these people if you're going to do this, because these are the most dangerous of individuals around.”

In written testimony, the Department of Juvenile Services, part of Governor Wes Moore’s administration, said it supports the bill.

The state Attorney General’s Office wrote in its testimony that it generally supports the bill, with the caveat that children charged with murder, rape or serial violent crimes should still have their cases start in adult court.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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