The Insanity of Sentencing Minors to Adult Prison: The Maryland Study

In the clear majority of cases, charging children as adults in the criminal system makes no sense. In fact, it actually has the perverse effect of increasing recidivism rates.
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"Why adult prison? It's not to help you better yourself, but to transform you in the most messed up ways because you hear and see more crime."

- "Frederick," arrested at age 16 and now serving a 30 year sentence in a Maryland prison

Empirical data from a recently released Maryland study backs this up. Both in terms of community safety and dollars, in the clear majority of cases, charging children as adults in the criminal system makes no sense. Throwing juveniles together with hardened adult criminals does nothing to reduce crime or lower all kinds of other societal costs.

The study was funded by the Just Kids Partnership to End the Automatic Prosecution of Youth as Adults -- a group made up of the Public Justice Center, Community Law in Action and United Parents of Incarcerated Children and Youth. It examined 135 individual cases of Baltimore youth in the Maryland justice system, and the results were dramatic. The group chose to undertake this study because as the authors state, "Maryland state and local agencies were not keeping track of crucial information about the effectiveness of its policy of charging youth as adults."

One of the key problems with charging children as adults is that until their cases are heard, the children must be kept in adult pretrial facilities in which they must be separated from the adult inmates. This can mean tortuous 23 hour isolation if the facility has no separate juvenile area.

Maryland county pretrial detention facilities, referred to more commonly as "jails," vary in how they house children charged as adults. Baltimore City happens to have a separate area of the jail where youth are housed. However, when a child waiting for his trial turns 18 in the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), he is immediately placed in the adult population where he can languish for extended periods. Children spend months or even years in adult jails while they wait for the criminal court judges to decide their cases.

The irony is that, 68% of the time, the child who is charged as an adult in Maryland will have his case dismissed or returned to the juvenile system. When judges and attorneys look at the cases of individual youth, they usually decide to send the child to the juvenile system or not to prosecute at all. Sadly, though, the youth by then has already faced irreparable harm from the pre-trial incarceration in an adult jail

Treating a youth like an adult is contrary to scientific evidence. The part of the brain that deals with decision-making and risks and consequences is not fully developed in a youth. Once a child matures, he will likely age out of crime. As the children typically receive very inadequate representation, the study showed that they are more likely to make false confessions, waive legal rights, and accept bad plea bargains. They also cannot assist in their own defense. As a result, adult court judges who are not specially trained in child development or familiar with services available in the juvenile justice system, frequently make life-altering decisions in a young person's case based on unreliable and inadequate information.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recognized in Graham vs. Florida (2010), there is often sheer folly in charging children as adults,

"Juveniles are more capable of change than are adults, and their actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievably depraved character than are the actions of adults... It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed."

This is not to say that a child who has committed an extremely heinous crime should immediately be released upon reaching adulthood. There are definitely cases of extreme violence where it is society's interest to transfer a convicted juvenile to an adult prison upon reaching 18 to continue a longer sentence. However, these cases are a very small minority of crimes committed by youth.

The authors of the Maryland study explain that sending a youth to adult prison is counterproductive as he will become hardened by the experience and tutored in criminal behavior by his older, more experienced inmates. He is also more likely to be raped and beaten there than in a juvenile facility. (Sadly, he is also more likely to commit suicide.)

There is also commonly a lack of rehabilitative services in adult prisons such as in Maryland. The authors explain that providing such rehabilitative services, as model juvenile detention systems do, costs less in the long run than charging youth as adults. The estimate is that every $1 spent on older teens in the rehabilitative juvenile justice system results in $3 of savings in the criminal justice system.

One final disturbing fact the study showed was that African-American youth are disproportionately impacted by laws charging youth as adults. All other things being equal, an African-American youth is more likely to be charged and convicted as an adult than his white peer. In Baltimore City, African-American youth charged as adults are overrepresented in the pretrial detention facility. While they comprise 63% of the City's population, 99% of youth in the jail are African-American.

It's time to start listening to the empirical data and not the sound of politicians' voices trying to appear "tough on crime" in order to curry favor with and frighten their least educated voters. Common sense should dictate the end of this inhumane and costly practice of sentencing youth to adult prisons.

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