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Getting Youth out of the Adult Criminal Justice System

In 2015, Governor Larry Hogan signed Maryland’s new law that keeps most youth in juvenile facilities while they await trial in adult courts. Among those looking on are young advocates associated with Public Welfare Foundation grantees Campaign for Youth Justice and Community Law In Action (Just Kids Campaign). Photo credit: Executive Office of the Governor.

In 2015, Governor Larry Hogan signed Maryland’s new law that keeps most youth in juvenile facilities while they await trial in adult courts. Among those looking on are young advocates associated with Public Welfare Foundation grantees Campaign for Youth Justice and Community Law In Action (Just Kids Campaign). Photo credit: Executive Office of the Governor.

 

Around 11:30 pm on December 31, 2008, Tyrone and a friend were heading to their respective homes in Baltimore to watch television as the ball dropped in New York’s Times Square. They cut through a familiar park and planned to make a quick stop at a convenience store.

But a block away from the store, they were confronted by policemen, who were looking for two young black men who had allegedly robbed a white man at gunpoint.

At the time, Tyrone and his friend were 16-year-old sophomores on the academic track at a local high school. Neither had a gun, but they were arrested and charged with armed robbery. Under Maryland law, that charge automatically put them in adult court and they were ordered to be held in Baltimore’s adult detention center.

Tyrone spent a month in a cell with a man twice his age who was charged with rape. Although he was not assaulted, he was put in solitary confinement for his own protection and spent about three months locked up alone for 23 hours a day before his case was finally resolved in court.

Despite the lack of any concrete evidence and the failure of the alleged victim to show up at the hearing, Tyrone was persuaded by the prosecutor and his public defender to take a deal that would send him to the juvenile system and put him on juvenile probation.

After complying with all the conditions that were imposed on him for two and a half years, Tyrone was released from probation and, after another six months, his record was expunged. Now 24, he is still trying to find “normal.” He received a GED, but it has been difficult to find work.

Some potential employers, “never looked me in the eye,” he recalled. “I was a regular statistic to them – another young black man who committed a crime. They didn’t care [that] I didn’t do anything,” he lamented.

Recently, Tyrone has become certified for work in construction, lead abatement and compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, with help from Community Law In Action (CLIA), a Public Welfare Foundation grantee. In addition to helping directly with youths like Tyrone through its Just Kids Campaign, CLIA has been working in Maryland to end the automatic prosecution of youth in adult courts for certain crimes. Since Tyrone’s release, the state has passed a law that keeps most young people in juvenile detention centers instead of adult jails while they are waiting to be tried in the adult criminal justice system.

Despite significant progress in Maryland and other states across the country, it is estimated that 95,000 children spend time in adult jails and prisons each year. On any given night, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 5,000 youth (under age 18) are locked up in adult jails and 1,200 more in adult prisons. And, while those numbers represent a 62 percent decline from a decade ago, the potential harms of locking up kids with adults, as well as the disproportionate representation of youth of color among those who are tried and incarcerated in the adult system, still persist.

The Campaign for Youth Justice, a Public Welfare Foundation grantee that is marking its 10th anniversary in 2016, has been a national leader in efforts to reduce the number of youth prosecuted in adult courts, seeking a return to the principles that led to the establishment of the first juvenile court in 1899. CFYJ’s push for change has been aided by a number of state-based reform advocates who are also supported by the Foundation.

In the past decade, CFYJ has provided technical assistance to state-based campaigns, increased awareness and political will among key decision-makers, engaged youth, parents and families that have been affected, and educated legislators, media and others to encourage policy changes related to its key focus of keeping youth from being transferred into the adult system.

As CFYJ has long pointed out, the transfer issue is important “because the consequences aren’t minor.” Research and studies show that youth who are tried in adult courts or held in adult facilities are more likely to be abused or assaulted, are more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to commit more crimes after they are released than those kept in the juvenile justice system.

Among the reforms gained during the past decade, due to the partnership between CFYJ and state advocates:

Marcy Mistrett, executive director of CFYJ, is right to applaud such progress. “The past decade has shown us that when you put youth and families in the center of reform amazing things can happen,” she said. “In addition, sharing effective tools among advocates helps educate policymakers and recruit champions much more quickly. Being part of a movement that recognizes that we can meet the needs of youth while preserving and even improving public safety also has helped build reform upon reform.”

Still, given the experiences and struggles that Tyrone has faced, Mistrett recognizes that there is more urgent work to be done by CFYJ and its partners.

As she put it, “We are at a critical moment where the stars really seem to be aligning. The reduction in youth arrests, paired with system reforms that cut the youth detention population in half, and the recognition by the right that these reforms are common sense means we can win this fight. However, we must insist on addressing the racial and ethnic disparities, continue to invest in community-based alternatives, and persist in helping any youth who has committed an offense get back on track and reclaim the ability to lead a successful life.”

Those are worthy goals for the next decade.

 

To download a PDF version of this newsletter, click here.

ABOUT THE PUBLIC WELFARE FOUNDATION

The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit www.publicwelfare.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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