“How could a judge turn you into something that you’re not?” was the question that Bryan Stevenson asked himself. In his widely acclaimed Ted Talk, “We Need to Talk About an Injustice”, Stevenson recounts his consternation and exhaustion as he stands before his fourteen year old client, clearly a child, and wonders at the “magic power” the judge has used to turn this child into an adult in his courtroom. Stevenson goes on to describe how, in an effort to grab some of that “magic power” for himself, he files a motion to try his “poor 14 year old black male client like a privileged, white, 75 year old corporate executive.”
The United States is the only country in the world in which a minor can be sentenced to life imprisonment. While the outlook is not as grim as in other states, Maryland’s current policy falls short of being ideal In the state of Maryland, youth between the ages of 14 and 17 who are accused of one of 33 offenses are automatically charged as adults. Bills like HB102/SB198 seek to expand this list of offenses. These cases may be transferred back into the juvenile system pending an additional review.
There are a number of reasons why bills such as these are deeply flawed, starting with the simple fact that developmentally, . MRI tests show that the prefrontal cortex which governs rational decisions and impulse control does not fully develop until the mid-20’s, and an overactive amygdala encourages risky behaviors. The nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as the “reward center” of the brain is overactive, especially when presented with rewards in the form of peer acceptance.
Add to this mixture a combination of stress and trauma, environmental hazards such as lead poisoning, an education system that fails to meet basic student needs like proper heating, and generational poverty with a fast-disappearing social safety net, and it becomes clear that an increase of criminal behavior in youth (much of it survival based) is inevitable. In my own home of Baltimore City, a 2014 study found that our youth face greater health risks and witness higher rates of neighborhood violence than impoverished youth in Ibadan, Nigeria.
In addition to punishing individual children reacting to social and policy failures, charging children as adults is not effective at reducing crime. Being tried as an adult does not reduce recidivism; in fact, young people transferred to the adult system are 3 times more likely to offend than youth in the juvenile system. However, being tried in the adult system does reduce access to necessary mental health services, and sharply increases the risk of sexual assault.
These facts don’t even begin to address a greater issue, which is that regardless of the defendant’s age, the justice system is heavily biased. And these racial disparities are not limited to prisons; they are present in what is often youths’ first contact with government services: their schools. Students of color are much more likely to be expelled or suspended, and punished more harshly for low-level behaviors like dress code violations, defiance, and inappropriate language. These are the factors which push them into the school to prison pipeline. In terms of juvenile justice in Maryland, African American juveniles are two times more likely to be arrested, ten times more likely to be detained, and 6 times more likely to be committed than their white counterparts.
The solution is simple: use data to scrutinize our disciplinary systems for racial biases, demand accountability for these biases from our schools and courts, and treat the symptoms of negative behaviors with age-appropriate services, with the goal of returning rehabilitated youth to family and community when they are ready. Bills like SB669/HB827 establish a diversion program that seeks to provide these necessary services as an alternative to incarceration. Common sense legislation like this can turn the misguided systemic desire for punishment into opportunities for rehabilitation. Evidence based data shows that solutions like these work, which is why LWVMD supports treatment programs and special services for juvenile offenders. Rehabilitation is better for our children, our families and our communities. Or, as Bryan Stevenson puts it, “We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
by: Jill Muth, Young Professional Policy Volunteer