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Commentary Justice

Deni Taveras & Mai Fernandez: Juvenile Justice Reforms Would Mean Real Changes for Young People

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By Deni L. Taveras and Mai Fernandez

Taveras, a Democrat, is the Prince George’s County District 2 councilmember. Fernandez is a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Institute, a former prosecutor, and a former executive director at the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Jabriera was 16 when she entered the adult criminal justice system. During an argument, her grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack, and Jabriera was charged with murder. On two occasions she unsuccessfully petitioned for waiver into the juvenile court system.

While at an adult facility, Jabriera had to shower alongside adult women, endure public cavity checks and was made to suffer the unwanted attention of men in a prison facility she had to travel through to receive her education. Jabriera never received developmentally appropriate services, therapy or counseling.

More young people in the justice system, much like Jabriera, are sent to the adult system in Maryland than in almost any other state, preventing youth from receiving developmentally appropriate care and increasing the likelihood of recidivism.

Even when youth are kept in the juvenile justice system, the state relies far too heavily on incarceration, especially harming youth of color. Black youth make up 77% of juvenile detention center admissions and cost taxpayers as much as $414,929 per young person per year.

We write as crime survivors and advocates. We believe that Maryland youth, and taxpayers, deserve better. Government spending should go toward age-appropriate treatment and evidence-based programs that make us all safer.

As a prosecutor, I, Mai Fernandez, encountered crime victims who were less interested in jail time for the young person and more interested in getting their property back or repaired, feeling safe and ensuring others did not suffer the same harm. Keeping kids in the juvenile justice system and funding supportive programming works.

In my youth, I, Deni Taveras, could have easily become a justice system statistic — orphaned at 8 when my father was murdered and raised in an inner-city drug-infested building at the height of the crack and AIDS epidemic. I saw the loss of family, friends and neighbors to addiction, crime and disease. All I knew was what I had lived, and it was only the positive intervention of community programs targeting at-risk youth like me, that enabled me to attend and graduate college and become a Prince George’s County councilmember. Today, I am a role model for my community. Alternative rehabilitation programs work when fully funded and correctly implemented.

In 2016, the first-ever national survey of crime survivors’ views of the justice system found that by a margin of 2-1, crime survivors preferred a justice system focused more on rehabilitation than punishment. It also showed that close to 75% of crime survivors preferred holding people accountable through non-carceral options such as counseling, mental health and/or drug treatment.

With research showing that up to 90% of youth in the juvenile system have had exposure to trauma, the system must do more to prevent recidivism than lock up our children. These young people need care and treatment.

The Maryland legislature has an opportunity during this General Assembly session to make real change for our youth with the support of SB165/HB294. This proposed legislation ends the automatic charging of juveniles as adults and allows youth to receive appropriate treatment in the juvenile system.

Based on proven evidence-based practices, the legislation supports removing barriers to diversion programs, raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 13, banning youth incarceration for low-level offenses and prohibiting indefinite periods of probation.

Similar legislation was passed with the support of crime survivors in the District of Columbia, New York City, Milwaukee County and Virginia as documented in a recent report Smart, Safe, and Fair II. These jurisdictions continue to reap the rewards of a developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system.

Given the monumental good that would come with enacting these bills, the legislature should pass them immediately.

Maryland’s juvenile justice system could become a model if the General Assembly passes these reforms. And more importantly, state legislators could make real change for our youth, assist victims of crime, address recidivism and create safer communities.


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Deni Taveras & Mai Fernandez: Juvenile Justice Reforms Would Mean Real Changes for Young People