This week, Governor O’Malley’s administration announced that it will not build a $70 million 120-bed jail for youth who are charged as adults. Instead, it proposes spending $30 million to renovate an existing adult correctional facility that will be downsized to house up to 60 youth while they await their trials. Taking advantage of these savings, the administration also plans to build a treatment center for young people who are committed to the juvenile justice system and in need of residential treatment services. The total cost of these two ventures is estimated to be $73 million.
State officials’ decision not to build a new jail is a good thing, and we applaud the efforts of hundreds of Baltimore City youth and advocates who relentlessly and persuasively argued that Baltimore does not need a new jail. We also appreciate state officials’ willingness to propose an alternative to the jail and to be receptive to housing more young people accused of serious crimes at the juvenile detention center, which currently has 60 empty beds to accommodate them. After taking a few days to celebrate this decision, our attention must turn to the work that lies ahead. In the months to come, Maryland policymakers must consider and answer one key question that would eliminate the need for even a renovated adult jail—whether the state of Maryland should end the practice of charging youth as adults. In our view, the answer is yes.
Under Maryland law, young people ages 14-17 who are accused of committing a crime may end up in the adult criminal justice system in one of three ways. First, a young person is automatically sent to an adult criminal court if he is charged with one of 33 specified crimes, such as robbery. Also, if a youth charged as an adult is ultimately found guilty and later accused of committing another crime, he will automatically go to the adult justice system (once an adult, always an adult). Finally, a juvenile court judge has the discretion to send a young person to the adult criminal justice system for his or her trial.
Here’s the problem. Last year, about 50 youth charged as adults were held each day at the Baltimore City Detention Center, an adult jail. Research has shown that in Baltimore City almost 70% of these youth have their cases either dismissed or sent to the juvenile justice system. Yet, they spend an average of three months languishing in an adult jail. Of the 30% who remain, only about 10% are convicted and sent to prison and the remaining 20% are convicted of the crime and released to the community for a period of probation. Therefore, Baltimore City’s criminal justice system confines about 50 young people in its adult jail, only five of whom are ultimately found guilty and sent to prison. This makes no sense.
More importantly, there is no evidence that charging youth as adults reduces crime. In fact, it has the opposite effect. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control, youth who are prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system are more likely to commit future crimes than young people whose cases are handled in the juvenile justice system.
In the spirit of continuing to adopt policies in Maryland that are grounded in data and sound research, we hope that policy makers will consider the high economic and social costs of prosecuting Maryland’s youth as adults, particularly African-American youth who are overrepresented in correctional facilities. Instead, all young people accused of a crime should be in the juvenile justice system, which explicitly responds to their treatment needs and capacity for rehabilitation.