Maryland holds the dubious distinction as having one of the highest rates in the country of prisoners who were sentenced as children, with a heavy racial skew, according to a new report.
The report titled “Crimes Against Humanity: The Mass Incarceration of Children in the United States” by the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids was released on Tuesday and provides one of the first national assessments of minors charged as adults. The numbers in Maryland represent the remnants of past “tough-on-crime” sentencing policies that stand in contrast to the more rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice system of today.
But in other ways, criminal justice reformers say, that era never ended.
The practice of automatically charging minors as adults for certain crimes remains the status quo in Maryland, despite efforts by reformers to pass a bill that would have ended it earlier this year. And Black children continue to make up the vast majority of those who enter the adult system as kids.
There are 1,132 prisoners in Maryland who were incarcerated as children, which is 6.09% of the adult prison population, according to the “Crimes Against Humanity” report — double the national average of about 3%. The report found that there are more than 32,000 prisoners across the country who were convicted when they were under the age of 18.
Maryland is one of nine states in the country with more than 1,000 prisoners who were sentenced as children. Of those prisoners, 90% are people of color: 81.3% are Black and 5.3% are Hispanic, the report found. The average sentence length for those prisoners was 25.7 years, and 224 are serving life sentences.
James Dold, the CEO of Human Rights for Kids, said the report should “shock the conscience” of Maryland lawmakers by outlining the consequences of having what he described as a “very permissive transfer statute.”
Dold said that states as conservative as Kansas and as progressive as California have made sweeping changes to the way they charge crimes committed by children, and Maryland has become a “national outlier” for its sentencing practices for children. He urged lawmakers to funnel resources into the state’s Department of Juvenile Services and send youths who commit crimes there for treatment.
“These are kids that are hurting, these are kids that have trauma backgrounds,” Dold said. “They need intensive group therapy. They need the support and love they should have gotten in the first place, but now it’s the obligation of the state to step in and provide it to them.”
Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who co-sponsored the “Youth Equity and Safety Act” to end automatic charging, said that despite major changes, juvenile justice policies in Maryland have actually regressed in the face of growing evidence that children’s brains are not fully developed, that adult prisons harm rather than rehabilitate, that Black neighborhoods are more heavily policed, and the overwhelming racial tilt of who ends up in the adult system.
“We haven’t moved forward in any way, and we’ve had all the data and information now for more than a decade of how to do things better,” Carter said. “Republican-led states and legislatures have moved in a different direction, and it’s quite interesting that in this Democrat-led state that prides itself on being progressive, we can’t seem to move to progressive legislative action when it comes to Black people, especially in the criminal justice system.”
Under current Maryland law, there are 33 criminal offenses that are automatically charged in adult court. Minors 14 and older are charged as adults if they are accused of first-degree murder, first-degree rape or a first-degree sex offense, as examples. Minors 16 and older are automatically charged as adults if they are accused of a violent crime or handgun violation.
Carter’s bill would have started all cases for those under 18 years old in the juvenile justice system, regardless of the accusation, and would have allowed prosecutors to press the juvenile court for a transfer to adult court if they could show that the child was unable to be rehabilitated through the juvenile system.
Children charged as adults often end up in the juvenile system eventually, Carter said, but they must go through the adult court process first, where they don’t receive programs or services, treatment or education.
“Lots of kids have gotten harmed by sitting and waiting in adult jail for six months, nine months, only to have their case nol-prossed [dropped by prosecutors],” Carter said.
The bill had to navigate a tough political climate, however, with rising levels of gun violence among youths and stubbornly high rates of violent crime in Baltimore. The senator said she was not optimistic the bill could be revived and passed next year.
Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney who led opposition to the bill, listed a number of horrific crimes committed by teenagers in explaining his opposition to efforts to end automatic charging.
“I understand that folks can take this position [of ending automatic charging] intellectually, but me and my assistant state’s attorneys are sitting in a room with these victims and victims’ families, and these are very adult crimes,” Shellenberger said. “We’re not doing this for shoplifting. We’re not doing this for malicious destruction of property. We’re talking about rape, murder, carjacking. That’s what we’re talking about.”
There was, however, agreement between Dold, Carter and Shellenberger on one issue: putting more resources into the juvenile justice system. If there were a bill to fully fund services, Shellenberger said he would be “the first come down and testify in Annapolis.”
“I’d be the first witness,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Please, let’s get this right.’ I would rather get somebody help when they are 13 or 14 than sit with a family whose loved ones were murdered by a 17-year-old.”