Black and white image of the Youth Detention Center in Baltimore City. The image is of a corner of the building. Tiny rectangular windows can be seen on the right hand side of the building
The Youth Detention Center on Greenmount Avenue was built at a cost of $35 million. Credit: Cameron Snell

Marilyn Mosby came back with the charges in short order. It had been a week since Timothy Reynolds, a 48-year-old white man, was shot and killed after confronting a group of squeegee kids while wielding a bat. And, within a few hours of his arrest, the 15-year-old Black boy accused of gunning down Reynolds was charged with first-degree murder.   

Reynolds’ killing, near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, garnered national attention. Locally, the shooting picked at old wounds and became fodder for Mosby’s opponents in a tight three-way race for her job as Baltimore City State’s Attorney. 

So-called squeegee kids — children who clean windshields at city intersections for tips—had already become an issue in the campaign, with former Deputy Attorney General for Maryland Thiru Vignarajah and defense attorney Ivan Bates, promising to arrest the squeegee kids who don’t accept “help” and get off the corners.

“I don’t believe in locking up 12-year-olds that are merely on the corner trying to survive,” Mosby fired back in a press conference in mid-July. “Ultimately, the core of both of my opponents’ plans are to return to a time of mass incarceration and overpolicing of Black and Brown communities.”

“There is nothing about Maryland’s laws or treatment of Black people that shows the state is progressive,” Carter said. “And there is nothing about Maryland’s stance on criminal justice that shows it’s progressive.”

Maryland state Senator Jill Carter

Mosby, who had charged six police officers with the death of Freddie Gray in her first term and stopped prosecuting many drug crimes in her second, vowed to take a communal approach to helping the squeegee kids, and said they needed help and not punishment. 

But she also had to step in time with an angry base of residents worn down by the quickening pace of homicides in the city. Baltimore had recorded 179 by July 1, the halfway point of the calendar year. The city was on pace to break the all-time record for homicides. 

So, when Reynolds was killed at the intersection of Light and Conway streets, Mosby did what Maryland has long done to Black boys: She brought the harshest penalty possible in the case, a first-degree murder charge. The charge automatically sends the teen, who was 14 at the time of the killing, to adult court, and exposes him to the possibility of a life sentence. 

Autocharging is a policy in Maryland where children are automatically tried as adults if charged with certain crimes, such as first-degree murder. The practice drives the high number of children tried as adults in Maryland, a state which refers more children to adult court than California, which is six times its size. “What automatic means is once you are arrested and the age is statutorily eligible, you lose all your rights as a child,” said Marcy Mistrett, senior program manager with Impact Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group. “You go to an adult system, you get processed as an adult, and you do adult time.”

First-degree murder is premeditated homicide, meaning the person needs to have time to think about and plan the killing. In the incident in the Harbor, video shows a group of children being moved on by a man wielding a bat, and kids responding to a conflict where tempers ran hot, opening up questions as to whether premeditation would apply in such a situation. 

“I was perturbed by the state’s attorney decision to charge him with first degree murder,” Maryland state Senator Jill Carter told Baltimore Beat. “She was running for election, and she wanted to appease people who she wanted to vote for her.”

As Carter’s comments make clear, Mosby had a few choices. She could have charged the boy with second-degree murder, which, under Maryland law, would have meant he would be tried as a minor — and, if convicted, would have been home by the time he turned 21. 

 Mosby, who declined to comment for this story, could have initially charged the boy as a minor and argued in front of a judge that his crimes should be adjudicated in adult court instead. This option would have allowed the boy’s attorney a chance to counter and argue his legal proceedings should remain in juvenile court. But the first-degree murder charge preempts all this. It is likely the boy will end up on trial as an adult facing a life sentence before he is old enough to get a driver’s license.

As a result of this charging decision, the boy, who turned 15 days after Reynolds was killed, will join the more than 1,900 Baltimore City children referred to adult court in the last 10 years. Like the boy, whose name we are not using because he is a minor, more than 80 percent of those children were Black, and the vast majority of them found themselves in adult court on so-called autocharges. And while the vast majority of the children charged as adults are not convicted on those charges, the process cuts those kids off from programs designed explicitly to help teenagers who find themselves in trouble.  

“A progressive prosecutor,” Carter said, “wouldn’t charge children as adults.”  

Prosecutors like Mosby bear plenty of responsibility for sending children, most of them Black, into the adult criminal justice system. State’s attorneys, as elected officials, are subject to the often fickle whims of an electorate sensitive to any fluctuation in crime, real or perceived. And our court system incentivizes bringing the harshest charge one can against a defendant. “Prosecutors charge the highest charge they can, as a way to negotiate down to a plea,” Mistrett said. Pushing a defendant into a plea agreement saves prosecutors and their staff time at trial, even if it is at the expense of a teenager who is sentenced to a longer term in prison. 

But prosecutors aren’t the only ones to blame. Charging the 15-year-old child as an adult keeps with legal traditions dating back more than 100 years in Maryland. The state has long meted out harsh consequences for Black children, and favored punishment instead of rehabilitation. Lawmakers in Annapolis, and judges often cower in the face of tough-on-crime political interests.

“There is nothing about Maryland’s laws or treatment of Black people that shows the state is progressive,” Carter said. “And there is nothing about Maryland’s stance on criminal justice that shows it’s progressive.” 

In the fall of 2019, more than two dozen government officials, including legislators, prosecutors, cops, defense attorneys, and academics, were called to the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee Room in Annapolis. Collectively they became the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, a bipartisan attempt to stem the flow of children into the state’s adult criminal justice system. 

Maryland state Senator Jill Carter served on the council as an appointee of the late Maryland state Senate President Mike Miller. The bulk of the council, including Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, were appointed by Republican Governor Larry Hogan. As the council convened in person for two meetings in 2019, and then virtually through 2020 and 2021, Carter and Shellenberger — the white, “tough on crime” prosecutor from Baltimore County — found themselves on opposite ends of the debate over reforms. 

Carter, an attorney herself, has been a vocal opponent of the practice of autocharging. In Maryland, a total of 30 crimes, including gun possession and assault, can lead to a child as young as 16 being charged as an adult. For children 14 and 15 years of age, autocharges are limited to first-degree murder, rape, and sexual offenses. Carter first introduced a bill to end the practice a decade ago when she was in the House of Delegates, but she couldn’t convince lawmakers to back the legislation. 

“What better solution if you are a politician [than] to blame the people who can’t vote”

Joshua Rovner, director of Youth Justice at The Sentencing Project

This effort, Carter thought, would be different. The words “criminal justice reform” fell from the lips of politicians across the country in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Carter’s own city of Baltimore was placed under a consent decree in the aftermath of Gray’s death and subsequent uprising. And there was the case of Kalief Browder, the teenager incarcerated on New York City’s infamous Riker Island for three years, including 700 days in solitary confinement. His suicide following his release moved many to include juvenile justice in the broader conversation of criminal justice reforms. The time seemed right for sweeping reforms in Maryland, and the Juvenile Justice Reform Council took on the issue.  

“We heard from people who were charged as adults when they were juveniles,” Carter said. “We had a panel of experts and they all spoke about the problems with autocharging.” 

In the summer of 2021, the Juvenile Justice Reform Council voted in favor of recommending the state end autocharging. The vote was 13-3 to recommend lawmakers in Annapolis end the practice of automatically referring juveniles to adult court for specific crimes. It wouldn’t matter. 

Perhaps the most outspoken of Hogan’s appointees to the Juvenile Justice Reform Council came from Carter’s own party. Shellenberger has served as the Baltimore County state’s attorney since 2007. He recently eked out a narrow victory in the Democratic primary for his seat in July. Shellenberger said the vote held by the council meant nothing since the majority of the body’s members didn’t vote. 

“Well 13 isn’t a majority, I mean it’s not even — It’s not even half,” he told Maryland Matters

Shellenberger whipped up opposition to efforts to end autocharging, and many in Annapolis followed suit. When it came time to pass a juvenile justice reform bill, autocharging became a bargaining chip. Lawmakers used it to get the more conservative members in the legislature to pass a package that gave kids like the boy charged in Reynolds’ killing the right to have an attorney present during an interrogation. 

“What better solution if you are a politician [than] to blame the people who can’t vote,” said Joshua Rovner, director of Youth Justice at The Sentencing Project. 

Mosby supported kids having an attorney present during interrogation, but Carter remembered “she was silent on autocharging.” 

The roots of the juvenile justice system in Maryland, like most in the country, can be traced back to the end of the 19th century, when the courts began to acknowledge the differences between the minds of children and adults. Progressive reformers of the day argued children were still malleable and could be reformed through training rather than incarceration. Baltimore City adopted practices already in place in Chicago and set the line of demarcation between childhood and adulthood, known legally as the age of majority, at 16 years of age. It would stay this way for decades, and as the system that became the state’s juvenile justice system was codified in the 1940s, the age of majority in the state of Maryland was set at 18. However, in Baltimore City the age of majority remained at 16. 

This practice created massive disparities that we still see today. In the 1950s, the state examined the inequalities in the juvenile justice system. John Ellington, special advisor to American Law Institute, authored a report on juvenile justice titled “Maryland’s Services and Facilities for Delinquent Children and Youthful Offenders.” In the report, he laid bare how the differences in age limits across the state hurt young people who happened to live in Baltimore City. “A boy of 16 or 17 faces a criminal conviction and a sentence to the Reformatory for an offense which would result in a finding of delinquency and commitment to a training school if he lived almost anywhere else in the state,” Ellington wrote.  

“Restricting the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court of Baltimore City, with its large population, to children under 16 results in putting the criminal stigma on several hundred Baltimore adolescents yearly,” he wrote later in the report. 

Maryland would eventually raise the age of majority. But first, in the 1960s, it became one of three states, along with Pennsylvania and Mississippi to charge children as adults in first-degree murder cases. Eleven more states would follow suit in charging children as adults in murder cases, bringing to total to 14 by 1986. This was only the beginning. 

The Youth Detention Center in Baltimore holds children charged as adults. Photo credit: Cameron Snell

In 1994, President Bill Clinton escalated the war on drugs when he signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the Crime Bill. It put more cops on the streets, and it changed the conversation on juvenile justice. Reform was an afterthought. The more pressing issue was capturing and containing children perceived as a threat. “They are often the kinds of kids called super predators, no conscience, no empathy,” then-first lady Hillary Clinton said in a speech in 1996. “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” 

In the wake of her speech, even more states adopted autocharging, so that, by the end of 1990s, 45 states had legal provisions to automatically charge children as adults.

“In the 1990s, that’s when we had the launch of the super predator,” Mistrett said. “You had a big public narrative of this generation of kids who were crack babies out wilding in the street. We had all these racist phrases in the narrative.” 

Since the mid-2000s, more than two dozen states have either abolished the practice of autocharging or passed reforms limiting its use. Meanwhile, Maryland doubled down on autocharging, adding more crimes to the list with which prosecutors could charge children as adults.

Thirty three crimes in Maryland will automatically land a child charged with those crimes in adult court. 

Today, as in the mid-20th century, Baltimore City sends more children into adult court than any jurisdiction in the state. In 2021, the city was responsible for almost one third of the children sent to adult courts in Maryland. While legislators make it legally possible to sentence children as adults, and prosecutors have discretion over what charges to file, judges have the power to refer children sent to adult court back into the juvenile system. 

In mid-August, Maryland Circuit Judge Yvette M. Bryant ordered the Department of Juvenile Services to evaluate the teen accused of killing Timothy Reynolds and prepare a report for the court. The report, due in mid-September, will help determine whether or not the court will accept the defense attorneys’ motion to move the case to juvenile court. 

The motion filed by the lawyers for the boy accused of killing Reynolds will eventually appear in juvenile transfer court. It’s expected to take about three months to get the court date, which is partially due to the slow pace of legal proceedings, but is also strategic. Defense attorneys want to have as much evidence on the child’s home life, mental health, intelligence, and emotional maturity before they appear in front of a juvenile transfer judge. The hope is to prove to a judge the defendant should not be tried as an adult. 

“In Maryland we have specific laws that prohibit children from engaging in acts that adults engage in such as voting, such as smoking, or entering a contract,” Carter said. “But when it comes to certain crimes, we hold them accountable as adults. We force a child to prove he is a child.”   

And, according to court records, Baltimore City judges, more often than not, don’t see the children accused of crimes as actual children. Of the more than 1,900 children who were referred to adult court from 2012 to 2021, only 47 percent were transferred down to juvenile court. 

Before she went to work for Impact Justice, Mistrett worked on juvenile justice reform at The Sentencing Project. She has not called for the abolition of trying some children as adults, but wants prosecutors to prove their case for doing so in front of a judge. 

“Where is this fixing anything? How is that helping advance safety and advance healing?” Mistrett said. “It is feeding a system that has the worst outcomes.” 

Juveniles charged as adults are more likely to reoffend and end up back in the criminal justice system than those as children. Mistrett and other advocates for reform, consider this to be one of the drivers behind the demographic disparities seen in Maryland prisons. Black Marylanders accounted for 29 percent of the state’s population, while Black inmates accounted for 71 percent of those incarcerated in 2019, according to data from The Sentencing Project.

By the time the teenage boy accused in Reynold’s killing goes to trial, it’s likely Baltimore City will have a new state’s attorney. Mosby lost her bid for a third term to Ivan Bates. Bates, the former defense attorney, has promised to come down hard on the squeegee kids, but has not indicated whether he will or will not continue to pursue first-degree murder charges against the boy. If convicted of the crime, the boy would be sentenced to life, with the first chance at parole coming in 15 years — meaning that the boy will mature and develop in an adult prison, with the knowledge that he won’t even have the chance of release until he is 30.

For now, the teenage boy will spend his days inside the $35 million Youth Detention Center on Greenmount Avenue. The prison for teens accused as adults was the brainchild of former Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley, who wanted to build a youth jail in the city where he was once mayor to house children and bolster his crime fighter bona fides for a run at the White House. Construction of the prison was stalled over its initial $100 million price tag, but was completed at about a third of the cost by O’Malley successor Republican Governor Larry Hogan, a true sign of how both parties find common ground on locking up children.   

Donna Brown, co-founder of the Citizens Policing Project, has been in and out of juvenile facilities, including YDC, for years. She has worked closely with juveniles during and after their incarceration, and has seen the same young men enter the system in their teens and exit in their late 20s and early 30s ill prepared for the world. They come home with minimal work skills, after having their entire lives — when to eat, sleep, wake, shower and work — scheduled by corrections officials. In short, their development has been stunted and the time away from the support of family and friends has left many of them emotionally damaged.   

“To have a kid go through development while they are incarcerated only causes more harm,” Brown said. “It is never in our interest to incarcerate kids. They are in the most critical part of their development.”

What happened in July near the Inner Harbor was tragic for the Reynolds family, but also for the family of the accused, and the teenage boys who will likely feel the brute force of a criminal legal system bearing down on them in the coming weeks and months. But as more kids cycle through the state’s massive juvenile criminal justice system, the adults running that system should remind themselves of their responsibility to the children. 

“Where is the system of accountability that is supposed to service that kid?” Brown said. “We came up with the concept of ‘it takes a village.’ Where’s the village now?”

J. Brian Charles was Deputy Editor of Baltimore Beat. Previously, he was a staffer at The Trace, The Hill, Chalkbeat, Governing, and Orange County Register. His work has appeared in Slate, Vox, Wired,...