Each year, hundreds of Maryland youths are automatically charged as if they were adults in the criminal justice system. While perhaps intended to promote public safety, research suggests this policy is bad for kids and communities. It needs to be reformed.

Prior to the ’80s and ’90s, youths were rarely charged as adults. But starting in 1994, Maryland’s legislature began automatically sending kids to the adult system for a list of new crimes. In 1998, the legislature added a “once an adult, always an adult” provision mandating that youths previously convicted of a felony in the adult system be automatically charged as adults for all future felonies.

These legislative changes were steeped in the belief that youths charged with serious offenses were “super-predators” who would usher in a “bloodbath of violence.” Certainly, adolescents are prone to impulsive, reckless actions. We all were. But youth delinquency, including violent crime, naturally discontinues as young people mature into adults.

Moreover, we now know that charging kids as adults isn’t an effective mechanism to enhance public safety. Rather than increasing accountability or deterring crime, it can harm youths and hinder rehabilitation. Youths in the adult system are at risk of victimization and solitary confinement, and are less able to access needed age-appropriate services. Furthermore, an adult criminal record can permanently hurt a youth’s odds of accessing educationhousing and employment.

In contrast, youth justice systems prioritize individualized services according to a youth’s needs and risks, and promote the active family involvement and prosocial relationships so crucial to preventing future delinquency.

Given these facts, it’s no surprise that Maryland judges are transferring more and more kids to the youth system when able. In 2014, less than four out of 10 youths charged as adults in Baltimore were later sent to the juvenile court system, but estimates from the first 10 months of 2017 suggest that this number has increased to as much as nine out of 10. At the state level, almost 400 cases involving youths charged as adults were transferred to youth court in fiscal year 2018.

Instead of expanding the list of offenses for which young people are automatically charged as adults (as some legislators attempted last session), it’s time for policymakers to revise these ineffective laws as other states have done.

They can begin by removing crimes from that list. Most young people charged as adults in Maryland have been accused of assault, robbery, handgun or firearm offenses, making these offenses a good place to start. Even better, these represent a large portion of the cases already being transferred by judges to the juvenile court system. Removing them from the list would likely result in better outcomes for youth and communities, and it could save resources by cutting down on the number of transfer hearings.

If nothing else, policymakers should remove the “once an adult, always an adult” statute. The current statute seizes juvenile court authority and grants it to the adult system without considering the circumstances of each case. If it was removed, juvenile court judges would regain their discretion, and young people, particularly those charged with nonviolent felony offenses, would be protected from being meted out disproportional, ineffective punishment.

Kids should be held accountable differently than adults. The lesser culpability and maturity of youths has been recognized by the Supreme Court, and that should be respected no matter the offense. It’s time policymakers say goodbye to antiquated “tough-on-crime” policies and get smart on crime instead.

Image credit: Jan H Andersen

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