Youths `spewed out' by courts

Baltimore teen case shows shortcomings of juvenile justice


No one doubted the severity of the criminal charges Rasheed Stevenson faced that day in court. The 17-year-old's public defender suggested sending him out of state for treatment. A prosecutor argued the boy had no conscience. A judge wanted him under "strict control."

A court-ordered evaluation recommended he remain charged as an adult for a case in which he was accused of choking a man until he was unconscious, and then robbing him of $6 and cigarettes.

But the judge ordered Stevenson sent back into the juvenile justice system, the same one that all three - judge, prosecutor and public defender - agreed had failed him in the past. Weeks later, Stevenson's case was dismissed because the victim didn't show up to testify.

Stevenson was back on the streets by early June, hanging with a gang in the city's Harwood neighborhood off Greenmount Avenue. A little more than a month later, he was dead. Someone had stabbed him.

The boy's journey through Baltimore's courts offers a troubling look into how juvenile offenders are treated by agencies responsible for their oversight and rehabilitation. About 10,000 juveniles are arrested each year, with more than two-thirds facing charges as minors in Baltimore, law enforcement statistics show.

Several hundred more are initially charged as adults for serious felonies, though about half are returned to juvenile court, according to prosecutors. Many end up back on the streets.

"It's a revolving door," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman of the advocacy group Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources. "All these youths are being chewed up and spewed out."

She said breakdowns between the juvenile and adult courts result in information not being shared and allow youths to slip through the cracks without getting help.

"What's wrong with the intake and case-management system that would allow us to ignore this kid until he's dead in the street?" Gurian-Sherman said of Stevenson. "He was worse than adrift. He was ignored. He was dismissed."

Because Stevenson was a minor, his criminal history - and how the juvenile system treated him - remains for the most part shrouded in secrecy. State laws shield criminal court records of juveniles from the public, even after death - a fact that some child welfare advocates say needs to change so the system can be better scrutinized.

But a telling one-hour public hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court, which was videotaped, opened a window into Stevenson's past, revealing the boy's interactions with the courts, juvenile services and police in the final months of his life.

It was public because at the time the youth faced adult charges in the assault and robbery case. The June 2 hearing was to determine whether the case should be returned to juvenile court.

Tracy Varda, the prosecutor, stood up in Judge Alfred Nance's courtroom and aggressively advocated for Stevenson to remain charged as an adult.

Varda said Stevenson had been arrested in early January, accused of choking a young man until he fell on a sidewalk, and then robbing him of money and cigarettes.

"This is an extremely serious offense," Varda argued. "He's physically overpowered a grown man. ... What kind of person is able to do this? The Department of Juvenile Services cannot give this defendant a conscience."

Varda said police officers caught Stevenson the day after the assault, after they saw him assaulting another man in the same block along Greenmount Avenue, and that he had been arrested seven times as a juvenile. Two of the incidents were adjudicated as "facts sustained" - the juvenile court's equivalent of a guilty finding.

Three of those arrests came after his January charges in the choking of the man, the prosecutor said. And his most recent arrest - on a charge of drug-dealing - occurred the night before, on June 1. He had been placed on probation twice.

But Stevenson had even more arrests on his juvenile rap sheet - a dozen total, according to information obtained by The Sun. It appears the judge never got a full picture of Stevenson's arrest history.

The boy's public defender, Mark Friedenthal, argued that Stevenson would be better served in the juvenile system, even as he criticized that same system for not providing sufficient services to the young suspect.

Stevenson couldn't read and write at a fifth-grade level, which made it difficult for him to be evaluated by a court medical investigator, Friedenthal noted. Having dropped out of school the previous year, Stevenson couldn't complete a written psychological examination.

Nance said Stevenson was at a "crossroads" in his life.

"The facts and circumstances before this court does not indicate that he has received ... real supervision within the juvenile system," Nance said. "It shows that there is no question that this case does suggest that there needs to be some strict control over him. This young man does not belong on the street."

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