Justice Can Take Ironic Twist For Juveniles In Adult Court

November 29, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

At 2:10 one morning last January, two plainclothes polic officers working a heavy drug-trafficking area in West Baltimore spotted 17-year-old David Alston crouching to hide something beneath a van parked on Etting Street.

It turned out to be a 9mm pistol. Despite his age, Alston was charged as an adult, under a 1986 law designed to stiffen punishment for dangerous young criminals. Under the provision, and 17-year-olds charged with handgun violations automatically face an adult trial and an adult sentence.

But in District Court last May, Alston got the usual punishment the adult court offers to its youngest defendants: another chance. He got a year's suspended sentence and a year's probation -- and went straight home.

Two months later, on July 14, David Alston was one of eight young drug dealers allegedly involved in a wild shootout two blocks from where his first handgun was confiscated. A 15-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet, and Alston is among six teen-agers facing murder charges in the case.

The pattern is common, illustrating one of the ironies of justice for juveniles in Maryland. A 15-year-old kid caught with a handgun and handled by juvenile court may well end up at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for delinquents for six months or more. A 16- or 17-year-old kid, appearing in adult court, is likely to get probation.

This paradox is no secret to teen-agers who know the system. It tends to undermine the deterrent effect the legislature intended for the "waiver," so named because juvenile court waives its jurisdiction over a juvenile.

"The older kids tell you, 'Waive me [to adult court],' because they know they'll get probation. They know they won't go to Hickey," says a veteran Department of Juvenile Services counselor, who asked not to be identified.

"Waiver is a disgrace, because the kids get probation and no one gets protected," says Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth and a member of a task force that studied the waiver issue in 1988.

Ordinarily, offenders under 18 are charged as juveniles and cannot be sent to adult jail or prison. But a prosecutor can ask for a waiver hearing to argue that a younger teen-ager should face trial as an adult because of his record or the seriousness of his alleged crime. In addition, a series of amendments to Maryland's criminal code has designated a number of crimes for which younger teen-agers are automatically charged as adults, beginning with handgun possession and ending with murder.

Last year, 973 Maryland youths under 18 were waived to adult court, most of them (540) in Baltimore, according to state police. But only 143 juveniles entered Maryland prisons in the last fiscal year, suggesting that the overwhelming majority of juveniles charged as adults avoid prison.

Police and prosecutors note that some teens who ultimately get probation do spend several months in jail awaiting trial, a prospect that may deter some potential young offenders. Also, an adult conviction stays permanently on a person's record, while juvenile court findings are wiped out when a person turns 18.

But Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms says the waiver problem shows the need for a new law to set up an intermediate sanction for older teens, falling somewhere between juvenile training school and adult prison.

"There are youngsters 15 to 18 who may be involved in violent offenses, who are not amenable to treatment in the juvenile system, but who certainly do not need to be detained around hardened adult criminals," he says.

The Waiver Task Force called for just such a new kind of correctional facility for serious teen-age offenders in 1988, but nothing was done.

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