In 1994, Maryland followed 48 other states that made it easier to prosecute children in adult court during the widespread vilification of “super predators” — a concept rooted in racist stereotypes that posited that some children were inherently irredeemable.
Nearly 30 years later, the two of us — one who was prosecuted as a child in adult court and one who has seen the system up close as a prosecutor and defense attorney — understand without a doubt that automatically charging children in adult court is a terrible policy that is racist in its impact, ineffective at protecting public safety, an inefficient use of court resources and contradicted by neuroscience lessons about adolescent brain development.
When the 1994 law went into effect to make it easier to charge children in adult court, Maryland’s already high rate of incarceration climbed steadily — particularly for young, Black men. Today, Maryland automatically charges more children in adult court per capita than any other state except Alabama, and in raw numbers, we are only second to Florida.
The adult prison system we send our state’s teenagers into doesn’t offer any of the many evidence-based, individual therapeutic interventions that have been proven to help rehabilitate youth. The teens being charged as adults are often themselves recent victims of crime, vulnerable children struggling to process the world around them.
After serving as a prosecutor, Melissa Miller became a criminal defense attorney and started to meet young men our system was entirely too willing to give up on before they were old enough to even recognize the ways that they had been failed and mistreated.
Adnan Syed was a child when he was arrested. At the age of 17, halfway through his senior year in high school, he was charged with first-degree murder, arrested and held without bail in an adult jail. He was tried as an adult, wrongfully convicted and ultimately given a sentence of life plus 30 years. While still a pencil-necked teenager, he was sent to live among fully grown men in the Maryland Penitentiary.
He and the other kids in adult prison tended to know each other. They were forced to grow up together. Children in adult facilities are at the highest risk of being sexually assaulted, raped and traumatized. While federal law requires “sight and sound” separation of children in adult facilities to shield them from violence, in practice this means children are in solitary confinement in adult jails across Maryland, at significant risk of psychological harm.
Charging young people in adult court is an especially self-defeating policy because 87% of children charged in adult court in Maryland later have their cases moved to juvenile court, dismissed or given time served. In the crucial weeks and months after a young person’s arrest, we could be engaging them in rehabilitation. Instead, we are wasting that time and putting children into dangerous adult confinement that only complicates rehabilitation efforts.
As we witness another nationwide obsession with youth and crime, the lessons we have learned since 1994 about the teenage brain offer hope. Teenagers are less mature and less able to resist impulsive behavior, and they’re more prone to taking risks and putting themselves in dangerous situations, because they have an inability to conceptualize and predict the likely outcomes of their own behavior. In other words, recklessness is a normal phase of adolescent development. But the same thing that makes teenagers dangerous, their developing brain, is also what makes them the most receptive to rehabilitation.
It’s time to undo the mistakes of the super-predator era. With guidance, support and evidence-based therapeutic interventions — such as cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoeducation, life skills instruction and wraparound services — even teenagers who find themselves in the most dangerous and harmful situations imaginable have a proven capacity for rehabilitation. Those rehabilitative interventions are all available within the juvenile court system, but are denied to youth incarcerated in the adult prison system.
This session, the Maryland General Assembly can pass the YES Act as introduced and end the automatic charging of kids as adults. For too long, Maryland has incarcerated mind-boggling numbers of Black and brown youth. It is time we end this inhumane practice and become a leader in rehabilitating our youth, while making our community and children safer.
Adnan Syed served more than 23 years in prison for murder after being charged as a child. A judge vacated his conviction in September 2022, and the charges were dismissed the following month. Melissa Miller is a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor based in Prince George’s County.