Commentary: When will Maryland start all juvenile cases in juvenile court? Unfortunately not soon.
By Carol Cichowski
The writer is a retired senior executive from the U.S. Department of Education. She currently serves as a citizen member of the Montgomery County Commission on Juvenile Justice and is an active member of the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club Advocacy Committee.
Maryland’s 2023 legislative session has ended, and it is time to take account of legislative casualties. One such casualty was House Bill 96/Senate Bill 93, the Youth Equity and Safety Act, which was stalled in committee. This is a juvenile justice bill championed, respectively, by Del. Charlotte Crutchfield (D-Montgomery) and Sen. Jill Carter (D-Baltimore City), that would end, once and for all, the automatic charging of youth who commit any one of 33 offenses as if they were adults. It would end a practice that has failed young people and our communities.
Maryland lawmakers got it right long ago when they established a separate system of justice for juveniles, recognizing that youth are developmentally different from adults and should be treated differently, even when they commit the same crimes as adults. Maryland legislators got it wrong in the 1990s when they abandoned a philosophy that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment in favor of throwing certain young people directly into the unforgiving adult criminal justice system through automatic charging. Maryland got it wrong when it adopted an approach rooted in unproven myths about incorrigible super-predators instead of what science tells us about children’s blameworthiness and capacity to change.
The introduction of HB96/SB93 was one more try in a series of attempts to end automatic charging in Maryland. In 2013 then-Del. Carter made the case for repealing automatic charging with much of the same evidence that was presented in this session. She tried again in 2016 and as Senator Carter in 2019. Del. Crutchfield introduced bills beginning in 2021. What has changed in the meantime is that more states have seen this practice for what it is — misguided and harmful — and have passed reforms narrowing pathways to adult court and prison. As of 2021, there are eight states that now have laws requiring all cases involving juveniles to start in juvenile court. Meanwhile, between 2013 and 2019, Maryland charged more than 7,000 young people as adults and earned the distinction as the state that sends more young people to adult court than any other state except Alabama. Maryland’s poor performance on this measure tells us how badly the state protects the human rights of its children.
So where does inaction leave us?
Each year hundreds more young people will have the unfair burden of convincing a judge in adult court that they deserve to be treated as children and allowed to participate in the juvenile justice system that was designed for their benefit. Time and resources will be wasted as most of the teenagers charged initially as adults end up being sent back to juvenile court by the judge.
While awaiting a determination about where they will be tried, young people will languish for months in juvenile facilities — or, in some cases, in adult jails where they will endure even worse conditions. As they wait, often far from home, their education is interrupted, and vital family connections are weakened. These youth will not be connected to treatment programs offering mental health and other restorative services. Even accountability is undermined because delay in the system’s response to the offense they committed is counterproductive. And these are the luckiest of those charged as adults.
Truly left behind will be the kids who have no prospects of ever having their individual circumstances considered in determining where they will be tried or who have failed to persuade a judge they can be rehabilitated. If these young people are convicted and sentenced as adults, they will be incarcerated in an adult prison where they are at risk of physical assault, sexual abuse, suicide, and never getting age-appropriate services geared to help them to become productive adults.
Do not be fooled by arguments that automatic charging prevents crime or makes for safer communities. The research says otherwise. There is no evidence that automatic charging is a deterrent to crime and there is research that ties it with higher rates of recidivism. It may suit prosecutors’ penchant for securing plea deals and gaining the harshest penalties possible, but this practice is neither just nor good public policy. Nobody wins if we put young people at risk of never getting the education, mental health, and rehabilitative services they need to turn their lives around.
There are no good excuses for having done nothing on HB96/SB93. We are left wondering, for yet another year, what it will take for the leadership in the Maryland General Assembly to step up and end a practice that is clearly wrong for our youth and our communities.