TRNN REPORT: In Baltimore and across the country more young people are being charged as adults and going to prison with longer sentences
MEGAN SHERMAN, TRNN: Around 200,000 youth under the age of 18 are charged in adult criminal courts every year in the United States. At any given moment in Baltimore City, Maryland, there are 95 youth in adult jails awaiting trials where they have been charged as adults. These cases are as a result of an emerging trend in the United States, where in some states like Maryland, youth may be automatically charged as adults with certain offenses. The idea is that harsher mandatory sentencing guidelines will deter more young people from crime. But a growing number of people in places like Baltimore, a city with a soaring crime rate, wonder whether more of an emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation rather than punishment for some young offenders. Gregg Hill was charged with four counts of armed robbery when he was just 16 years old. He was held for five months in a juvenile wing of the general adult population Baltimore City Detention Center, while awaiting his waiver hearing to determine whether he could be sent back to the juvenile justice system or be formally tried as an adult.
GREGG HILL, YOUTH ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PROJECT: I don’t think anyone anywhere truly believes that the juvenile justice system is reforming young offenders. Like, you change people for the worse by incarcerating them in a system that does not lend itself to helping them become better once they are released back onto the streets of Baltimore City.
SHERMAN: A recent report by the Just Kids Partnership on Baltimore youth in the adult criminal justice system found that youth housed in adult facilities are at significantly higher risk of physical and psychological harm than those housed in juvenile detention centers. Most children who are held for most of the time in pretrial adult jails end up being charged as minors in the juvenile justice system. However, the harsh conditions that young offenders are exposed to, as well as the lack of programs and resources diverted to youth rehabilitation while inside general population jails like the Baltimore City Detention Center can have lasting impacts on minors’ social and psychological development.
HILL: It was a culture shock. Like, you see things that you never saw before. So, like, you see people get beat up. You see people get forced to do other people’s laundry. You see people who, like, get feces thrown on them, like, in their faces, and then COs not letting them take a shower. You’re treated like–not–I don’t want to say like a animal, but you’re treated like less than human, you’re treated like a subhuman, like somebody who doesn’t really exist.
SHERMAN: The Just Kids report also indicates that children caught up in the adult justice system are more likely to commit more and more serious crimes once released from custody. Baltimore Police Officer Ricardo Burrell and Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation also note how spending time in an adult jail has the potential to only further hurting [of] young offenders, especially in the absence of rehabilitative programs to help keep kids from reentering the criminal justice system.
OFF. RICARDO BURRELL, BALTIMORE CITY POLICE: Well, the whole thing is, if you in a negative environment, you going to pick up negative things unless they have a program that’s set in place while they are incarcerated to help them and develop into a positive person. But if the majority of time they spending time with people who are full-fledged criminals, completely negative, they’re going to pick up their bad habits to where they might [have] went in knowing one thing, and now while they in there, they going to come out knowing several different things.
BART LUBOW, ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION: –detention and corrections facilities, which have a century-long history of scandal and abuse throughout this country, which are horribly expensive to operate, certainly relative to what it might cost to provide other sorts of remedial supports to kids who are behaviorally challenged and in terms of the results that they produce, most notably recidivism results, which are pathetic. A recent study completed in New York State that tracked sort of graduates of the state’s youth corrections system found that of the males, 85 percent were rearrested within–I think it was five years of their release.
HILL: I mean, any jail, no matter what jail it is, is always going to be basically just a breeding ground for better criminals. Like, that’s the end of it, in all essence, because no matter what you were doing, there’s somebody there who’s been doing it longer than you. In a sense, like, you will always come out of there a worse criminal than before you went in. Like, you’re a colder person. Like, you’re willing to do–you’re willing to go to further limits to survive.
SHERMAN: Maryland laws charging youth as adults disproportionately affect young black males in Baltimore. While African Americans comprise 63 percent of Baltimore’s total population, they represented 99 percent of the youth held in pretrial detention facilities, in a trend reflected by national rates of minority overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. When Kimberly Armstrong’s 14-year-old son was charged as an adult, she left her job as a bus driver to pursue advocacy work with groups like Just Kids and to push for policy changes in the youth criminal justice system. Armstrong and many others see a history of endemic structural racism as a critical factor in the disproportionate prevalence of minority youth being caught up in the adult criminal justice system.
KIMBERLY ARMSTRONG, UNITED PARENTS OF INCARCERATED CHILDREN AND YOUTH: The system is designed to do exactly what it’s doing. Racism is now embedded in policy, whether you want to believe it or not. It’s embedded into policy. We’re not advocating on the behalf of anyone who is committing a crime and know that they’re committed a crime and that they should not be punished as so. But what we are saying of–is the injustice in it, in not being fair to all people, because you can have two kids make the same mistake or commit the same crime, one be Caucasian and one be African American, and depending where they live at, the African-American child is going to get twice as much the penalty, and the Caucasian child will probably walk out of the courtroom and never anything may never happen to him.
LUBOW: If you have underfunded, undertrained public defender staff, and virtually all of the kids are represented by public defenders, and those kids who are arrested are disproportionately youth of color, they’re going to have weak defenses and are going to face the greatest jeopardy from the legal process. If you have white middle-class kids whose parents can afford private attorneys who can devote the time and have the relationships to actually bring an individual case to a judge’s or a prosecutor’s attention, you’re going to get a better result.
SHERMAN: Recent census data indicates that one out of every four Baltimoreans live below the poverty line, with black children hit particularly hard. Gregg Hill explains how poverty and a lack of employment opportunities can often push young people like himself into crime in order to make ends meet.
HILL: There were about 10, 11, 12 of us living in a two-bedroom apartment. At the time, we were working. We were in high school full-time. We didn’t see selling drugs as a option for us. Being 16 in Baltimore City, there’s not really too many jobs that will hire you that will pay you more than what we were getting paid now. So at that time, being that we couldn’t afford to really feed the children who lived in our home, we couldn’t afford to keep all our bills paid, the lights on, so forth, we decided that robbing people would be a good option for us. People never look at the situations that create these criminals in the first place. So it’s not like, you know, criminals are just something–like, they’re a anomaly to the human race. Criminals are people who are forced into that life by basic human need, by the lack of a basic human need.
SHERMAN: Having the desire to get a quality education in economically depressed areas in cities like Baltimore may not be enough to ensure that young people stay in school. Kim Armstrong notes how long-standing inequalities in school funding and a lack of investment in young people create a system of underperforming schools that impact young people at an early age.
ARMSTRONG: The schools look like prisons. When you go to other counties or you go to other areas, these schools are beautiful. So it’s psychological impacts that also can penetrate these young kids, these young children at a early age. And if someone is continually telling you that you are nothing and you’re never going to be anything, at some point you start believing that. So if you don’t believe and care about yourself, what makes you think that these children are going to grow up to have some type of compassion [incompr.]
SHERMAN: According to Baltimore Police Sergeant Carrie Everett, education plays a critical role in the socialization of young people. She notes how a lack of sufficient educational opportunities for incarcerated youth can often increase the chances that they will return to a life of crime once they are released.
SGT. CARRIE EVERETT, BALTIMORE POLICE: Education is much more than just reading a book, you know, and taking a class or taking a test. There’s so much more to having good schools. The socialization, all that is important. It teaches you civics. You know, it teaches you being able to work through your problems constructively and not destructively. Most youth, if they’re incarcerated at a young age, they’re not given the proper opportunity to get education, even work jobs. So when they come back out into society as an adult, they have now been what I call classified incarcerated and they have that mentality. So they don’t have the proper education, nor the proper attributes that it takes to move on forward, so they–sometimes they resort back to those crimes that facilitated them going back–I mean, going into jail to begin with.
SHERMAN: Gregg says that in addition to better educational opportunities and options for youth, effective targeted job training programs could go a long way in reforming the youth criminal justice system, to rehabilitate youth rather than cycle them back into criminal activities.
HILL: I think one thing that the justice system could do is instead of taking these first-time offenders and simply putting them on probation, like, that probation should include but not be limited to job training. You have youth, a whole force of youth, who are being currently arrested, incarcerated, sent away to other states, that could be staying home, receiving job training, becoming skilled workers, becoming, you know, the next generation of Baltimore business owners. You know, you have culinary arts schools, you have a plethora of training facilities in the city that are not being utilized, because people are not being given the opportunities or the information to utilize those things. So I think first the juvenile justice system needs to start extending these services, the full capacity of these services, to juveniles.
SHERMAN: There are a number of groups across Baltimore organizing at the local, state, and national levels to push for deep changes to the youth criminal justice system. There is a proposal to build a $100 million youth detention center that will house youth who have been charged as adults in Baltimore. The project has been a matter of great controversy, with critics saying that evidence shows that it is more effective to spend money on programs that will keep youth out of jail rather than building more institutions that will lock them up. This is Megan Sherman reporting with The Real News Network.