Children in Maryland are automatically charged as adults for any of 33 different charges. Per capita, only Alabama sends more of its kids into adult court based on the initial charge than we do. In Maryland, the overwhelming majority — more than 80 percent — of children automatically charged as adults are Black. Children in the adult system don’t have access to many of the services provided by the Department of Juvenile Services, such as mental health care, mentorship, and family support services.
Once a child is charged as an adult, they can file a motion requesting a transfer hearing, where a judge will determine whether the child will be moved to the juvenile system. Before a transfer hearing can occur, the child undergoes an evaluation consisting of tests and interviews conducted by various experts. This process can take months, if not longer. During this time, a child may go without needed services and treatment. State’s attorney’s offices have the option, at their discretion, to not oppose these motions, but this is not an option that is exercised often in Baltimore.
Children who must spend months in jail waiting for hearings and trials have their right to an education taken from them, often missing school, falling behind, and sometimes losing a whole grade level. In addition, they often lose placement in mentorship and tutoring programs that would increase their chances of successfully returning to their communities when the ordeal is over. The impact of incarceration on children, their families, their school communities, and the greater communities they live in is devastating.
Once a child does have a transfer hearing, they are likely to face racism in the courts. “Virtually all white defendants have their cases transferred back to juvenile court, where less than half of Black children have their cases transferred back,” Jenny Egan, chief attorney at the Office of the Public Defender’s juvenile division in Baltimore City, told WYPR earlier this year.
In several states, prosecutors must prove a child should be prosecuted as an adult. In Maryland, we have it backward. Here, the burden to prove a child should be transferred from the adult to the juvenile system falls on the child and their lawyer. Advocates for youth in Maryland have worked for years to pass the Youth Equity and Safety Act, which would end the autocharging of children as adults. Maryland’s legislative session came to a close at the time of this writing, and legislators failed for the 13th year in a row to vote on this bill, once again failing to protect children’s basic human rights.
The Department of Justice has weighed in on this issue and determined that “children do not belong in adult courts, jails, and prisons.” In “Juvenile Transfer Laws: An Effective Deterrent to Delinquency,” researchers wrote: “…overall, youth adjudicated in juvenile court had a 29-percent lower risk of rearrest than those tried in criminal court.” Public officials who support the treatment of children as adults often express a belief that some children are so bad that they deserve to be in adult jail — a wrongheaded belief that is inextricable from both white supremacy and ableism. But even if this were true — if “bad” and “deserve” could be measured at all — the data clearly and simply shows that policies punishing children by putting them in adult jails does not work for children or for their communities.
Yet in bail reviews, we are still hearing the heartbreaking stories of children being prosecuted as adults. We regularly hear cases where children in need of mental health services are unable to access the services they need. Instead, these children are kept in jail with deteriorating mental health, often in what is deemed “protective” isolation due to COVID-19 quarantines and other “for their own safety” justifications. We hear about children turning 18 while awaiting transfer hearings and being moved to adult jails where they lose access to schooling. We hear about unhoused children, children who are parents or parents-to-be, children acting as caretakers and breadwinners for their families, and children ostracized for their sexual orientation and gender and fearful for their safety in adult jails where they are not protected.
No child should be behind bars. A start to making that a reality is ending the practice of prosecuting children as adults, because they definitionally are not adults. At the same time, we must stop funding and supporting the criminalization and hyperpolicing of teenagers existing in public, take police out of our children’s schools, and fund high-quality public education, community centers, libraries, and other resources vital to a healthy, safe, and happy childhood.