Violent youths' sentences under fire
Lengthy record of suspect in shooting of girl, 5, puts lens on juvenile justice system
By Julie Bykowicz | firstname.lastname@example.org
July 19, 2009
At 17, Lamont Davis has been arrested 15 times since age 10, including charges of drug dealing, carjacking with a handgun and assaults. Yet he's spent just a handful of weeks in juvenile treatment facilities over the years and was sent home in July after admitting to charges in a robbery.
Days later, the Baltimore teen was arrested on charges that he critically wounded a 5-year-old girl as he shot at another youth.
That Davis now faces more serious criminal charges than ever, city prosecutors and some public officials say, highlights a dangerous problem in the juvenile justice system: Because it emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, teens who are lightly sanctioned for early offenses sometimes graduate to more violent crimes. Some, including the city's top prosecutor, are calling for better ways to deal with young offenders, including charging more of them as adults and lengthening the time they can spend in custody or under supervision.
"There are some kids who have exhausted all of the resources that the juvenile system offers," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "There are some young people who are not capable of being rehabilitated in the juvenile system, and we need to find another way to deal with those people. Community programs and short detentions is not addressing the issue."
The statistics, prosecutors say, bear out what they see in court every day: More than half of the juveniles who return to their communities after the most serious sanction available in juvenile court - an out-of-home placement - are in handcuffs again within a year, according to state data. Three-quarters of them have been rearrested within three years.
"The total process needs to be changed on all levels," Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said in a recent interview. "The number of young people involved in violent crime has increased. It has escalated to the point where it's gotten all of us at the table to better collaborate."
Last year, about 4,200 Baltimore youths faced juvenile charges. Of the ones found responsible for crimes, about 1,100 were removed from their homes to locked facilities, structured foster care and other places. Another 2,300 received services in the community, through programs such as family therapy and electronic home monitoring, or were supervised informally.
Officials at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees young offenders at facilities and in their communities, counter that the system - though not always perfect - is working.
"Do I think that we need to be concerned that juvenile offenders are not being held accountable? No. They are being held accountable. We have 1,200 locked up today [statewide]," said Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore. "Generally, if you compare the juvenile system and what's available to help kids, there's no suggestion we would be better off by sending them to the adult system."
DeVore, juvenile experts and public defenders point to research showing that young people have brains different from adults and should be treated differently when they commit crimes. To punish them like adults can have unintended consequences, they say.
A juvenile who serves time in an adult prison will be schooled by more experienced criminals and hardened by what studies show is the harsh treatment they receive there. Some studies show as much as a 100 percent rearrest rate for juveniles who are released from adult prisons.
"The most punitive approach might not get us the most public safety," said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Police Institute in Washington. "The adult system does not have age-appropriate resources."
But prosecutors say young offenders often don't receive the kinds of sanctions that will change their behavior.
Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Rallo, a juvenile prosecutor for five years, gave several examples of sentences that horrified her. There was the young drug dealer sent home to his 23-year-old sister after he admitted to repeatedly shooting an addict who'd backed out of a buy. He was quickly arrested again for selling drugs. There was the boy who got a brief stint in reform school after using a gun to hold a family hostage in a home invasion. Within a year after returning home, he'd been arrested four times on drug charges.
Maryland's juvenile system, Rallo said, "was not created for the types of offenders we're seeing today."
The law guiding when juveniles are treated as adults is 40 years old and hasn't been amended in 15 years. Fourteen-year-olds accused of first-degree murder, rape or sex offense and 16-year-olds charged with most other violent crimes are automatically charged as adults, though defense attorneys can - and often do - persuade judges to move their clients to juvenile court.
Prosecutors have urged a reluctant state legislature to add more crimes, particularly gang-related assaults and drug dealing, to the list of offenses for which a teen is charged as an adult.
Jessamy said she wants state lawmakers to consider even broader reforms, including creating a youthful-offender facility in the adult system or "blended sentencing," which would enable judges to sentence violent youths to a juvenile facility until age 18 and then move them into the adult system to serve additional time.
Another blended sentencing option would give Circuit Court judges the power to sentence a young offender to juvenile facilities but with a suspended adult prison term to be served if the youth fails to reform. Though such sentencing is not spelled out in a state law, some Maryland judges have occasionally crafted such sentences.
About half the states have laws enabling one or both kinds of blended sentencing, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice in Pittsburgh. Yet researchers there say no substantive studies have been done on whether blended sentencing decreases recidivism.
A better alternative, Velázquez said, would be to lengthen the time offenders can stay in juvenile facilities. Maryland law says offenders must leave juvenile facilities when they turn 21, though most are released at age 18. Several states, including Oregon, allow judges to sentence youths to juvenile facilities until they are 25.
"The research shows that kids age out of delinquent behavior by then," she said. "If they stay in the juvenile system longer, they're more likely to get the treatment and services they need to improve the chances that they won't re-offend."
DeVore said his agency is on the right path, pointing to increased availability of proven programs like intensive, in-home family therapy. The department, in partnership with the city, also created the Violence Prevention Initiative, which closely supervises about 200 offenders, including teens responsible for robberies and assaults, in the community, checking on them as often as five times a week.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said recently that changes in Juvenile Services have "all been about putting a much higher level of supervision and a tighter level of supervision on those people who are on the streets that we know are at risk to themselves or to others."
To public defenders in the Juvenile Protection Division, a group that tracks the services youths receive after sentencing, the juvenile system works well in its current form - if judges, caseworkers and attorneys take the time to find the right treatment for each offender.
When such care is taken, they say, success stories emerge.
Antonio Franklin, a 21-year-old with developmental disabilities and bipolar disorder, works full time as a security guard at Fort Meade and lives in a Catonsville apartment run by a private mental health care provider. He hasn't been in trouble in years and, through his church, serves as a mentor to misbehaving kids.
Five years ago, when Bea Zipperlee, a licensed clinical social worker with the public defender's office, met the Salisbury native, he was in full restraints in a Towson hospital's psychiatric ward. He had tried to kill himself by bashing his head against a wall at an Eastern Shore youth lockup, where he was confined after beating someone with a baseball bat.
Zipperlee, part of the Juvenile Protection Division, persuaded a judge to transfer Franklin from juvenile lockup to Rosewood Center, where he was treated for a year. Then she got him into a private program where he lives alone in an apartment but has around-the-clock access to a caseworker.
"Without the juvenile system, I don't think I would have made it in society," Franklin said. He credits Zipperlee with saving his life. "She would always call me, even after I cussed her out. She always cared about what happened to me. I'd never had that support before."
Not all offenders find such a watchful advocate as they hurtle through the juvenile system.
That might have been the case with Lamont Davis, who after years of juvenile offenses faces charges as an adult for attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of 5-year-old Raven Wyatt.
According to people with access to his confidential juvenile record, Davis was not placed in a juvenile facility for treatment until 2008. He ran away from two group homes. Then he landed at Mount Clare, a small group home near his Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, where he spent six weeks.
Three workers there, who did not want to be named because of the privacy issue, said he was doing well. "We saw real progress," one employee said. "It was a structured environment, and he seemed to appreciate that structure."
But then Juvenile Services suddenly closed Mount Clare at the end of March, part of what DeVore said was a broader effort to reduce the number of group homes in favor of other programs.
Unable to complete his treatment at Mount Clare, Davis was moved briefly to a shelter. Then he returned home.
Ideas for reform
•Add more categories of crime, particularly gang and drug offenses, to automatic adult jurisdiction.
•Allow juvenile judges to sentence offenders to a juvenile facility until age 18 and then switch them to the adult system to serve additional prison time.
•Persuade Circuit Court judges to sentence teens to juvenile facilities but with an adult prison term hanging over their heads if they fail.
•Extend from 21 to 25 the age at which offender must leave juvenile facilities.
•Better analyze the needs of new offenders to get them into programs that can truly rehabilitate them.
When is a juvenile charged as an adult?
Age 14 and older
•First-degree sex offense
•Attempt or conspiracy to commit any of above
* 16- and 17-year-olds charged with first-degree murder cannot be transferred to juvenile court
Age 16 and older
•Attempted armed robbery
•Carjacking (armed and unarmed)
•Attempted second-degree murder
•Second-degree sex offense
•Attempted second-degree sex offense
•Various handgun crimes, including minor in possession