Treating juvenile offenders

April 29, 2007

The 16-year-old kept his head down, as his lawyer pleaded with a Baltimore judge to keep his case in the juvenile justice system. It was a tough call: Jermaine M. Sanders had been charged as an adult with stabbing his older brother to death. But Jermaine had a tough life; neglected by a sick mother who couldn't protect him from an abusive stepfather, the boy was sent to live in a group home for four years. After returning to his family, he was beaten again, this time by his older brother.

Judge Martin P. Welch knew the teen would get no help in an adult system and ordered the case to juvenile court. He made the right call, while voicing a pressing concern: Was juvenile justice capable of treating the boy?

That's the Solomon's choice facing judges when young defendants are as often victims of violence as agents of it. The situation is particularly vexing now as the state's juvenile justice system suffers from a dearth of secure treatment beds even as a new national study endorses keeping young offenders in the juvenile justice system.

For starters, prosecuting juveniles as adults hasn't deterred serious crime, according to the study by an affiliate of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and juveniles in the adult system are more likely to reoffend, face greater risk of violence and are more prone to suicide.

Juvenile violence, the Task Force on Community Preventive Services found, is a public health problem - youths ages 10 to 17 committed 25 percent of all serious violent crime in the past 25 years, although they represented only 12 percent of the population - and should be treated as such. It's a view that should be supported.

But without adequate treatment options, the problem can be compounded. In Baltimore these days, city prosecutors are finding it increasingly difficult to locate appropriate placements for juveniles who are found delinquent of serious crimes. The Charles H. Hickey School, the state's oldest secure facility, is being phased out and serves mostly as a detention center. The closure of the Bowling Brook Preparatory School last month exacerbated the shortage of treatment beds. As of this past week, 151 juveniles were being held by the state waiting for placement in treatment facilities; one-third of them are expected to go out of state.

The O'Malley administration has put $26 million into improving the juvenile system and is building the state's first secure treatment facility in decades. But it won't open until July, and demand may exceed availability. For Jermaine, who has said that he lashed out at his brother in self-defense, help can't come soon enough.

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