In Md., More Kids Tried as Adults
By Philip P. Pan
They argue with conviction, minimizing their clients' involvement in crimes, emphasizing their youthfulness, calling tearful parents to testify, all but begging judges not to "throw another life away" by keeping them in the adult courts.
These days, the lawyers usually lose.
Four years after Maryland revamped its juvenile justice laws to "get tough" on teenage criminals, the number of youths charged with crimes as adults in the state is climbing ever higher, and judges are jailing more minors in state prisons than ever before. Last year, nearly as many juveniles were sent to prison in Maryland as in the District and Virginia combined.
At the same time, Congress is considering several controversial bills that would encourage other states to follow Maryland and enact similar, tougher measures. Last week's deadly ambush outside an Arkansas school, allegedly by two boys, 11 and 13, has added momentum to the effort.
But in Maryland, at least, legislators, judges and other state officials are wondering what exactly this campaign to prosecute young offenders as adults has accomplished.
Some echo the views of youth advocates who believe the changes are indiscriminately harsh and consign children who might be rehabilitated to lives of crime by jailing them with older felons.
But even among those who favor stiffer penalties for violent juveniles, there is a growing unease that simply transferring them to the adult courts has not been enough.
Part of the problem is a perception -- supported by anecdotes and some statistics -- that many juveniles charged as adults are escaping punishment, perhaps because they are considered first-time offenders in the adult courts. Officials report that some teenagers even prefer to be charged as adults because they believe they'll be treated more leniently that way.
"We hear stories all the time about how some of them want to go up to the adult system," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who focuses on crime issues for the Glendening administration. "Unless we're very careful, we'll sound tough and look good to voters, but we may be delivering less punishment and accountability. . . . My biggest fear is that these juveniles aren't getting punished at all."
In 1994, Maryland lawmakers voted to require police to charge minors 16 and older as adults when they are arrested for any of a long list of crimes, including armed robbery, possession of a handgun and various forms of assault. The state already required police to treat youths 14 and older charged with first-degree murder and rape as adults.
As a result, Maryland now requires juveniles to be charged as adults for a wider range of offenses than both the District and Virginia, where prosecutors are given more discretion.
But it's unclear what effect these changes have had. No state agency has tracked what happens to juveniles in the adult courts, examining how many go to prison and how quickly they get out compared with their counterparts in the juvenile system. Nor has any one examined whether the youths are more likely to commit crimes after they are released.
Townsend is asking the General Assembly this year to establish a commission to study all aspects of the state's juvenile justice system in the next two years and figure out what's happening.
It's clear that police are charging more minors as adults with crimes than ever before. State police report that figure rose faster than juvenile arrests overall between 1993 and 1996, from 1,066 to about 1,450, an increase of 36 percent.
But no one is sure how many of those youths remain in the adult system because judges can transfer them back to juvenile court. To complicate matters, juvenile court judges also transfer hundreds of cases each year to the adult courts.
One indisputable change is that Maryland judges are sending more juveniles to adult prisons. According to state corrections officials, judges sentenced a record 334 juveniles to prison last year, 25 percent more than in 1994 and 50 percent more than in 1990.
"There are juveniles in almost every institution in the state now," said Ronald Moats, warden of the Maryland Correctional Training Center, a medium-security facility in Hagerstown.
Most juveniles convicted as adults are imprisoned with the general population, but Moats said he tries to keep the 40 or so youths in his prison separated from the adults -- although not because he's afraid for the juveniles.
"That's probably our most difficult tier," he said. "They're more violent and they lack respect for authority and rules. . . . They don't come to us for petty thefts."
But if the most serious juvenile offenders tried as adults are entering prison, state officials say, hundreds of other youths transferred to the adult system are ending up on probation or they are acquitted of charges.
And that begs the question: Would those juveniles have been punished more severely in the juvenile courts?
According to the preliminary results of a study by the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the answer is yes. A draft copy suggests juveniles in the adult courts are far more likely to get probation or no sentence than minors charged with similar crimes in the juvenile system.
That's because many teenagers charged as adults are considered first-time offenders, said Prince George's Circuit Judge Michelle Hotten, who presides over the county's juvenile court.
"I think everybody agrees there should be a correlation between criminal behavior and some kind of sanctions," Hotten said. "But putting them in the adult system doesn't always accomplish that. More often than not, they may get probation."
Other judges are more skeptical of the study's findings.
"There's no doubt the adult court is tougher," said William D. Missouri, the county's administrative judge, "but it depends on the crime." Adult court judges won't hesitate to jail the most violent juveniles, he said, but may be less willing to incarcerate juveniles convicted of less serious crimes.
Defense attorneys, for their part, said they always prefer to keep cases in juvenile court because a conviction at the adult level means a permanent record and possibly a lengthy prison term. By contrast, juvenile records are sealed and the court can hold defendants only until they are 21.
Unlike the adult court, which focuses on punishment, the mission of the juvenile court is to rehabilitate offenders who still might be changed. But Hotten and other judges say the state has not committed the resources to get the job done.
As a result, said Prince George's Police Chief John S. Farrell, officers see juvenile offenders "cycling in and out of the [juvenile] system again and again. And that sends them the wrong message." The question, he said, is whether the adult courts are handling them any better.
"Many of these laws are passed out of a sense of frustration about what to do with an underfunded, understaffed juvenile justice program," he said.
Gilberto de Jesus, the state's new secretary of juvenile justice, said the department is trying to be more creative and efficient in the use of its limited resources.
"That means doing something the first time a young person breaks the law, instead of waiting until after eight or ten arrests to hold them accountable," he said.
But de Jesus said it may simply be too late for older juveniles committing more serious crimes, given the resources available to the department.
"Injecting that child into the juvenile system, he preys on other kids and acts as leader. He is going to contaminate the others," he said. "Some of these kids, there's just nothing we can do for them."
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