Reform Council Recommends Ending Policy of Automatically Charging Some Youth as Adults

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger (D) argued against ending the practice of charging children as adults for certain crimes at a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council Thursday. Screenshot.

At a heated meeting Thursday, the Juvenile Justice Reform Council voted to recommend that the legislature abolish the practice of automatically charging minors in adult criminal court on a vote of 13-3 with three abstentions.

But not without doubt concerning the procedural integrity of the vote.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger (D) questioned the legitimacy of the vote, asking if the majority of the 29-member committee needed to vote in favor of a measure in order for it to stand.

“Well 13 isn’t a majority, I mean it’s not even — It’s not even half,” he said.

In a text exchange, Juvenile Public Defender Jenny Egan referenced a section of Maryland’s State Government code that states that, as long as a quorum is present, an “investigating committee may act by a majority vote of its members who are present at a meeting and vote.”

An email provided to Maryland Matters confirmed Thursday’s vote.

“Applying the voting procedures that were previously outlined and used during the Council’s work in 2020, and after consulting with the Office of the Attorney General on those procedures, it appears the measure did pass,” wrote Committee Counsel Jameson D. Lancaster.

Confusion over the vote capped what was an intense meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, where members discussed the recommendation to end automatic adult jurisdiction — the first of four recommendations offered by the Office of the Public Defender.

Automatic Adult Jurisdiction, also known as direct file, is the practice of charging minors as adults for specific crimes.

In Maryland, kids age 14 and up are automatically charged as adults for first-degree rape, attempted first-degree rape and conspiracy to commit first-degree rape and first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

Teens over 16 are automatically charged as adults for some firearms offenses and other crimes:

  • Carjacking and armed carjacking;
  • First-degree assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Robbery with a dangerous weapon and attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon;
  • Second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder;
  • Second-degree rape and attempted second-degree rape;
  • Third-degree sex offenses; and
  • Voluntary manslaughter.

Once a minor has been convicted as an adult in a Maryland court, they are no longer eligible to have cases heard by a juvenile judge. This is known as the “once an adult, always an adult” provision.

Ending automatic adult jurisdiction wouldn’t stop youth from being charged as adults in court, but would give discretion to juvenile court judges about whether a case should be waived up to adult criminal court.

‘A history of racial inequity, injustice and racism’

Del. Jesse T. Pippy (R-Frederick) asked why the Maryland General Assembly enacted the law allowing juveniles to be charged as adults in the first place.

Egan said that kids age 16 and up in Baltimore began to be automatically charged as adults “around the turn of the [twentieth] century.”

“It was 18 If you lived in the rest of the state,” she said

Egan said that the law only grew more strict as time wore on, reaching a fever pitch during the 80s when criminologists and lawmakers criminalized poor, young Black people by insinuating that they would become super-predators: “children who were preying on us … because they had no conscience, and there was a concerted effort to portray Black children as subhuman or less than human.”

“It is a history of racial inequity, injustice and racism that has led to this practice,” she said.

According to a presentation from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, 7,800 minors were charged as adults between 2013 and 2020 — and 80% of them were Black.

Shellenberger asked what would happen to violent cases if direct file were abolished, providing Nick Browning as an example.

In 2008, 15-year-old Nick Browning murdered his parents and two younger brothers in their Baltimore County home. He later confessed to having planned the killings.

In response to Shellenberger’s question, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) said “the answer is very simple.” Shellenberger, as the state’s attorney, would have the burden of arguing why the criminal court should have jurisdiction over the case and leave it to a juvenile court judge to decide, she said.

“We are legally not allowed to presume guilt at the beginning of a case, and we shouldn’t do that,” she added.

‘Less rhetoric and more facts’

Councilmembers also argued the viability of housing children charged with violent crimes in juvenile facilities.

Maryland Secretary of Juvenile Services Sam Abed said that “generally speaking,” the department already detains minors charged as adults, but there are some exceptions in state law that allow youth to be held in adult jails.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, federal law will require that all children, regardless of their charges, be held in juvenile facilities beginning Dec. 21, 2022, unless a judge determines that housing a minor in an adult jail is “in the interest of justice.”

Egan said that there are only a few jurisdictions where juveniles are held in adult jails — “Mr. Shellenberger’s being where the most kids are in adult facilities.”

Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick)

Pippy, who grew frustrated during the debate, countered that some youth shouldn’t be held in Department of Juvenile Services facilities, noting that a group of minors started a “riot” at the Victor Cullen Center, a regional maximum-security juvenile detention facility in Frederick County, in 2018.

“That was a serious situation where the ‘kids,’ as Ms. Egan would call them, … literally overtook this facility and injured staff,” he said. “So is that the adequate facilities that we’re talking about?”

Pippy continued to confront Egan, saying he appreciated her recounting the history of direct file, but he “prefer[s] less rhetoric and more facts.”

Rosemary King Johnston, the former executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children, applauded the council for its ability to have tough discussions but expressed concern over the tone of Thursday’s debate.

“I think that to try to characterize people trying to give their opinions based on the data that we have all had and received … to characterize it as sarcastic or rhetoric or name-calling is a big disservice not only to the people sitting here today but to our legislators [and] to the children and the parents who we serve,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify that Maryland is not currently out of compliance with federal law for housing juveniles in adult jails.

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