A Broken System

Our View: The Lamont Davis Case Suggests Serious Problems With How The Criminal Justice System Deals With Violent Juvenile Offenders

There's Got To Be A Better Way

July 12, 2009

Lamont Davis, the 17-year-old arrested and charged as an adult in the shooting of 5-year-old Raven Wyatt, should never have been on the streets. He had been arrested 15 times since he was 10, and he had been committed to the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services since February 2008, during which time he was arrested and charged in four separate incidents. Yet in June, a juvenile court judge let him out of the secure detention facility where he had been held after his last arrest in April for assaulting and robbing a teenage girl. He was sent home wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, which a DJS spokeswoman said was the most stringent measure it could take against him - despite the fact he was clearly a time bomb waiting to go off.

The juvenile justice system was set up a century ago to deal with troubled youths and rehabilitate them so that they could lead productive lives. Even then it was recognized that putting youthful offenders into prison alongside hardened adult criminals was undesirable if the goal was to help them turn their lives around. But today's juvenile offenders are too often both more violent and more incorrigible than their predecessors, and the juvenile justice system seems less able to offer alternatives to deal with their problems. Public safety suffers as a result.

A 2007 report by the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office on 20 juveniles between the ages of 14 and 17 who had committed homicides the previous year showed they had an average of four felony arrests before they killed someone. Three-quarters of them came from broken homes, and more than half of them had a parent or guardian with a criminal record. A quarter of them were under Department of Juvenile Services supervision when they committed a homicide. Virtually all of them had gone through the juvenile system, yet most stayed on the streets until they committed a murder and were charged as adults.

That suggests that the failure of the system to handle Lamont Davis is by no means unique. There are hundreds of troubled kids like him across the state, and the juvenile criminal justice system doesn't seem to know what to do with them. City prosecutors say Maryland needs more secure detention facilities to rehabilitate violent repeat offenders who can't be safely treated in their communities.

But the Department of Juvenile Services already has a secure detention facility in Frederick County, and it is planning to build two more in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. In addition, the department contracts with other states to house violent youthful offenders whom it can't accommodate in its own facilities. It says the problem is with prosecutors and judges who tie its the department's hands by ordering offenders be treated close to their communities.

What's clear is that the present system is not working and that its failure endangers both the public and the lives of the troubled youngsters it is supposed to protect. There's no way Lamont Davis shouldn't have been in a secure detention facility somewhere. Putting him back on the streets shouldn't have been a option for dealing with a youth who already had compiled such an extensive criminal record at so young an age.

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