Amid Juvenile Justice Reform Push, Commission Examines Maryland’s High Rate of Trying Young People as Adults

Pretrial
Bill Oxford/unsplash.com.

Before he spoke at the Juvenile Justice Reform Council Tuesday afternoon, Dwayne Betts was told he had three minutes of their time.

The council was prepared to be briefed on children charged as adults in court, something Betts knows about very well.

He said he’d try to keep his testimony short, with a caveat:

“One of the things I find challenging about this conversation is that it’s always too brief,” he said. “You’re always asked to, sort of, signal the parade of horrors that you’ve experienced or that you’ve seen and there’s never the kind of tangible, deep, reflective thought that might actually move the conversation and change the perspective of legislators in such a way that the policies actually change.”

A Maryland native, Betts was 16-years-old when he was sentenced to a Virginia prison for carjacking. He served eight-and-a-half years.

When he came home, he went to the University of Maryland and then Yale Law School. Betts worked in the Office of the Public Defender after graduation, where he represented other young people who were being tried as adults.

“I find it strange — really — to think that the substance of these conversations really rarely talk about the ways in which people have been ruined by prison,” he solemnly told the council.

While Betts brought a personal perspective, Marcy Mistrett, a senior fellow at The Sentencing Project, gave the commission a look at juveniles facing adult court through the numbers.

Mistrett said that Maryland has the second-highest rate of transferring youth to adult courts: 157.6 for every 100,000 charged — second only to Alabama, which transfers 201.6 children to adult court for every 100,000 charged.

According to Mistrett, all three branches of government — legislative, judicial and executive — have the ability to send juveniles to adult court through several methods:

  • 45 states, including Maryland, use judicial waivers, by which judges determine whether defendants will be tried as juveniles or adults;
  • 13 states allow prosecutors to use discretion to charge minors as adults;
  • three states have established the age of criminal responsibility for one’s actions at ages younger than 18 years old;
  • 35 states, including Maryland, have “Once An Adult” laws, meaning that, once a young person is charged as an adult, any other charge they face is automatically elevated to adult court; and
  • 26 states, including Maryland, allow legislatures to set, by statute, the threshold for being charged as a juvenile for certain crimes.

Maryland currently has 33 eligible charges that can send a minor to adult court — “definitely at the broad end, nationally,” said Mistrett. It’s also one of only nine states that send more than 200 children to adult court every year.

When it comes to judicial discretion, Mistrett said that Maryland judges transfer cases from adult court down to juvenile court about 60% of the time.

There are clear racial disparities in this aspect of juvenile justice.

Nationally, nearly 90% of children pushed to the adult system are of color, according to Mistrett.

At a meeting held earlier this month, Jeffrey Zuback, the chief of research and analysis for the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, told the panel that 80% of juveniles charged as adults between 2013 and 2020 were Black and 91% were male.

Their most common offenses: first-degree assault, armed robbery and firearm possession.

This tracks with Maryland’s record of adult incarceration. According to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ Annual Data Dashboard, 72.2% of the state’s prison population in 2020 was Black.

And according to a report released by the Justice Policy Institute in late 2019, Maryland has the highest rate of incarceration for Black men of all 50 states. The second closest is Mississippi.

Zuback said about 85% of youth were charged as adults based on thresholds set in statute in 2020. He added that that the overall percentage of youth charged as adults based on statutory requirements has generally increased in the past five years.

Betts told the committee that he thought not only about the personal impact of his time as a juvenile in prison but about the impact that sentencing young people to adult facilities has  — on their community and on victims of crimes.

“They remain scarred over the 20 or 30 year period of time of incarceration — that it’s not just the young people who end up in prison who get failed, but it’s the community at large who gets failed,” he said. “And part of that is because there’s, frankly, little expectation that young people could be beyond what they were in whatever moment of crisis they found themselves in that led to incarceration.”

Betts said three minutes is not adequate to explain the trauma and impact of being a kid in prison “ill-served by the [prison] system.”

“I know that I’ve gone, like 35-seconds over my time, but I’d like to think that, of those 3,500 days that I spent in prison when I could’ve easily been somewhere else — when somebody easily could’ve expected me to have the potential of being a Yale Law graduate — that they could’ve saved me some of that time, too.” 

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