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Juvenile justice system works on reforming the lives of incarcerated teens

An inside look at juvenile justice
Posted at 8:07 AM, Apr 09, 2019

BALTIMORE, Md. — Hundreds of Maryland kids are incarcerated every year.

WMAR-2 News spoke with several of those kids who tell us about their experience entering the juvenile justice system.

The group of young men and one woman didn't hold anything back.

From the mistakes they've made to the crimes they committed, the kids were an open book on their life experiences.

Since they’re either minors or entered the system as juveniles, their real names are not used and their faces are kept hidden to protect their identities as they work to be better in their future than the past.

A variety of run-ins with the law often puts troubled kids face-to-face with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS).

One young man, who is no longer incarcerated, “Lamar,” said, “I did know that what I was doing was wrong, but I didn’t care about the consequences because I never thought that I was going to get caught. I understand everybody gets caught, once in their life, or down the road, but I just didn’t think it was going to happen to me.”

Now 19 years old, “Lamar” isn’t alone in getting caught. More than 800 kids were incarcerated statewide in the juvenile justice system in 2018.

Nearly 90 percent of those incarcerated are male, more than 10 percent female, and all under the age of 21.

There are many reasons why these kids find themselves in trouble with the law, from a traumatic childhood and peer pressure, to biological factors.

“They don’t mature until about age 25," said Maryland Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Dr. Sam Abed. "The last part of their brains to develop is the frontal lobe. That’s the part that controls your executive functions and would lead you to say, ‘oh, you know, I may not want to do this because it could get me in trouble.’”

Run by DJS, the state’s Victor Cullen Center takes the most serious offenders from carjacking to robberies, with the most common being second-degree assault.

According to Abed, second-degree assault is an offense many kids might commit unwittingly.

“It is normal for adolescent kids to get into conflicts and fight, and we should not be bringing them into custody. We should not be incarcerating them for doing something that’s normal behavior. What we should be doing is intervening with them and showing them that this isn’t the way to resolve that dispute,” Abed said.

Secretary Abed explains what's in store for kids convicted of committing crimes.

“We have a decision to make for those misdemeanor cases, so right there at that decision point we can either informally supervise the youth, or divert that youth out of the system, if it’s a misdemeanor offense" Abed said. "Again, we’re a public safety agency; any felony cases do get forwarded to the state’s attorney."

Some teens avoid incarceration by being put on house arrest or making amends with their victims.

“Your defense lawyer is never going to let you say you’re sorry because that’s an admission, but, in this process, you get to that sincere apology, and then they come to a resolution they’ll actually come up with an agreement that they’ll sign off on,” Abed said.

Others like “Bill” and “Mike,” may face a different fate.

“Bill” said, “I got booked and they called my mom to come pick me up, she said she won’t pick me up, and I was like, 'Damn, I ain’t never expect this to come to like this,' but I couldn’t be mad ‘cause I put myself in this position.”

“Mike” said, “So the judge, he already saw the severity of my charges, it’s like a pattern, and since I’m so young doing stuff like that, he said it’s like a violent pattern that he wants to deal with right now so, like kill it at the root.”

Data from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services shows, nearly half of the kids who complete their program get arrested again within a year of release

“I think a lot of them are successful," Abed said. "We use a very unforgiving way of evaluating success, recidivism, and, if a kid commits any small offense after they’ve been with us, they count as a recidivist."

The repeat offender stats for 2018 show many of those who get re-arrested have their charges dropped, while 20 percent are reconvicted.

Only 15 percent of those repeat offenders end up re-incarcerated, as the rest are able to avoid incarceration by wearing an ankle monitor.

There is a disparity in other statistics which shows 19 percent of those kids who are incarcerated are white, yet more than 72 percent are black.

“If you’re black and you’re male, you’re more likely to be detained; you’re more likely to be incarcerated. You’re more likely to be treated more harshly, and that’s not fair. It shouldn’t work that way, and we have a responsibility to look at our system. Everybody has a responsibility to look at every step of their system to address this,” Abed said.

While the overall numbers of kids being placed in a state facility are down since 2016, the number of youth incarcerated for a violent crime is on the rise.

Most of those kids being placed by the courts into the juvenile justice system are 15,16, 17 years old.

The DJS data resource guide contains 245 pages of stats and information. What the report doesn’t reveal is how do these kids end up later in life.

“Did they finish school? Did they go to college? Did they get married and have a family? Are they supporting that family, and have a nice job? And unfortunately, that information is not available to us,”Abed said.

It’s for the same reason we can’t show you the faces of incarcerated kids.

“We want to protect their identities. We don’t want to have collateral consequences come in the way of their success later in life, and so they put up a lot of barriers to ensure that that doesn’t happen," Abed said. "We need to find a way to navigate through those so that we can find the success stories.”