Correct the mistake

March 18, 2003|By Tara Andrews

THE GENERAL Assembly shortly will be presented with the opportunity to correct a 10-year-old mistake that caused the state to abandon hundreds of children to its adult criminal system.

If passed, House Bill 520 will fix the way Maryland approaches troubled youths by once again giving juvenile court judges the authority to determine when a child should be tried as an adult.

Ten years ago, Maryland, like far too many states, passed what is commonly known as an "exclusionary statute," a law that requires that children charged with committing certain offenses be tried as adults. Exclusionary statutes purport to make our families and communities safer by subjecting serious youthful offenders to more severe and more permanent penalties.

But if good public policy is grounded in good research, Maryland's exclusionary statute is bad public policy. For when the law was passed, it was grounded in several false assumptions that have not borne out over the past decade.

Ten years ago, Maryland assumed that trying kids as adults would lead to harsher punishment for youthful offenders. Ten years later, studies show that children tried as adults generally do not receive harsher sentences than their juvenile counterparts.

Ten years ago, Maryland assumed that harsher treatment of kids would enhance community protection. Ten years later, five large-scale studies indicate that juveniles tried and convicted in criminal court tend to recidivate more quickly, more seriously and at a higher rate than juveniles tried and "treated" in juvenile court.

Ten years ago, Maryland insisted that if a kid was big enough to commit the crime, he or she was big enough to do the time. Ten years later, studies call into serious question a child's emotional and intellectual capacity to stand trial as an adult.

Statistics show that children confined with adults are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be assaulted by staff, 50 percent more likely to be assaulted with a weapon and eight times more likely to commit suicide.

What's more, Maryland's exclusionary statute disproportionately targets minority youths and has only worsened Maryland's record of disproportionate minority confinement. When arrested, African-American and, increasingly, Latino youths are more likely to be charged as adults than white youths, and when convicted they are more likely to receive longer sentences that white youths.

We teach our children that they should learn from their mistakes. It remains to be seen whether we can learn from our own. Ten years ago, Maryland initiated what has proved to be a failed experiment. The time has come to abandon that experiment and do what is in the best interest of us all.

Tara Andrews, a lawyer, is chair of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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