The United States incarcerates approximately 500,000 youth offenders each year, not including those that go on to be tried as adults in criminal court.
The first juvenile court was founded in America in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois. Before its establishment, all children 7 and older were thought to be capable of criminal intent and were tried as adults in the general court system for any crime they were charged with committing.
However, the belief that children were simply small adults began to fade and a focus on rehabilitating young offenders, rather than punish them, began to take light. Hence the reason separate juvenile courts were created.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the public’s focus on youth offenders began to shift again. It was then that the American people began to perceive juvenile crime to be on the rise, especially when it came to violent crimes, and it was decided that the current juvenile court system was far too lenient on such criminal offenders.
This “tough on crime” attitude led to more punitive legislation against juveniles, enforced more mandatory sentences, and even allowed for automatic transfers of juvenile offenders to adult court for certain crimes.
Today, I will shed some light on the juvenile court system in Maryland, why a juvenile might be tried as an adult in the Maryland criminal court system, and the complications that may result from trying more juveniles in adult court.
What is Juvenile Court?
Each state has a set of special courts designated for minors, those aged 7 to 18 years old and who have been accused of violating a criminal statute. These courts, generally referred to as juvenile courts, deal in civil proceedings rather than criminal. This means that regardless of the crime committed, a juvenile could not be charged criminally for their actions.
In juvenile court, the presiding judge is asked to determine whether the accused is considered a juvenile delinquent or not. If a delinquency determination is made, the court then retains power over the minor and has the authority to “do what is best” for the offender. In the state of Maryland this includes:
- Caring for and protecting the mental and physical development of the delinquent child
- Balancing the public’s safety with holding the delinquent child responsible for offenses committed while also helping the child to become a responsible adult
- Providing treatment plans for rehabilitation
- Strengthening the delinquent child’s family ties
- Holding delinquent’s parents responsible when appropriate
- Removing the child from an unsafe home environment
The goal of Maryland’s Juvenile Court is to give both children and parents the resources necessary to stop the cycle of delinquent behavior. The emphasis is on helping minors in trouble become productive members of society as adults, rather than continue their behavior and find themselves in more trouble as the years pass.
Ways to Try Juveniles as Adults
Though juvenile court is reserved for minors who have been accused of committing crimes, there are several ways in which a juvenile’s case may be transferred to adult court.
- Judicial Waiver – When the presiding judge has the authority to transfer the case to adult court.
- Direct File – Sometimes called “Prosecutorial Discretion,” this is when the prosecuting attorney has the power to decide whether a juvenile will be tried as an adult or not.
- Statutory Exclusion – This is when a state’s existing statutes require a juvenile be tried as an adult. The statute takes into consideration such things as the juvenile’s age, the seriousness of the crime, and the juvenile’s prior record.
- Once an Adult, Always an Adult – This rule applies to juveniles who have previously been tried as an adult. Any subsequent offenses will automatically be tried in adult court as well.
In Maryland, there are several instances where a juvenile charged with a crime will automatically be transferred to adult court to answer for their behavior.
Juveniles that are 16 years of age or older may be transferred to adult court for the following offenses:
- Second degree murder
- Manslaughter (except involuntary)
- Second degree rape or sex offense
- Third degree sex offense
- Robbery with a deadly weapon
- First degree assault
- Using, wearing, carrying, or transporting a firearm during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime
- Use or possession of a firearm.
Juveniles that are 14 years or older and have been charged with a crime punishable by life imprisonment will likely be handled in adult court as well.
The presiding judge ultimately considers things such as the juvenile’s age, mental and physical condition, agreement to future treatment options, the nature of the crime committed, and the public’s safety before making a determination whether to try the case in juvenile or adult court.
Consequences of Being Tried as an Adult
Being tried in adult court as opposed to juvenile court presents many serious consequences. If tried and convicted for a crime in adult court, a juvenile will face the same penalties imposed on adults for similar crimes despite still being a child.
After the sentence has been served, a juvenile tried in adult court will have a permanent record to deal with when applying for jobs or trying to get further education. Whereas if tried in juvenile court, at the onset of adulthood, the juvenile’s record is typically permanently sealed and inaccessible to the public.
An adult conviction can also result in a juvenile’s loss of certain rights, such as the right to vote and the right to own a firearm.
Legal Mistakes Juveniles Make in Adult Court
During the process of being tried, convicted, and sentenced in adult court, many juveniles face some heavy struggles. Lacking the experience or a general knowledge of the country’s court system can lead to many problems. Some common mistakes made by juveniles being tried as adults include:
- Believing that an arrest equates with a guilty verdict. This may result in false confessions because juveniles do not always understand their right to remain silent.
- Believing they must speak in court.
- Believing information given to them by a police officer or prosecuting attorney. This can lead to plea deal agreements that are not fully understood or in the best interest of the juvenile.
- Believing that all authority figures are not to be trusted, including a public defender which leads to a lack of proper representation. Having no attorney present can drastically change the course of the trial and affect the outcome.
It is unfortunate that so many American juveniles find themselves in the adult court system charged with a serious crime.
However, it is important to understand that all people, regardless of what crime they have been charged with, are legally entitled to a lawyer. In juvenile court and adult court, minors have the right to have an attorney present to help guide them through the legal process and to defend them against the charges brought upon them. It should be noted that if a juvenile is tried in the juvenile system in Maryland, he or she is required by law to have an attorney. That is not the case if he or she is tried as an adult.
Dilip Paliath, Esq. is one of Baltimore’s leading juvenile attorneys. He has a thorough understanding of the Juvenile Court system at both the juvenile and adult level and has the skills required to defend a minor charged with various crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies.
As a private attorney, Dilip Paliath, Esq. is dedicated to providing your child the best legal counsel there is. He can work closely with every client he has and helps to minimize the effects a criminal charge can have on both the juvenile and extended family members. Contact him today and see how he can help your child. That is one of the best defense moves you can make immediately following your child’s arrest.