A new ruling by the highest court in Maryland offers fresh hope to hundreds of offenders sent to prison for crimes they committed as minors.
The Court of Appeals, the equivalent of most states’ Supreme Court, held that judges must properly consider whether juveniles can be rehabilitated before deciding whether to assign their cases to adult courts, where they are subject to harsher sentences than in juvenile court.
Maryland sends more than 200 minors to adult court each year, making it one of just nine states that assigns that many, according to reporting by the Baltimore Sun. Critics of the practice say it forces youth to navigate an adult criminal justice system for acts committed before their brains are fully developed.
The ruling arose from the case of Howard Jimmy Davis, a Baltimore County youth who was charged with assault with a deadly weapon at age 16 during a home invasion.
According to court testimony, Davis had been scarred by multiple traumatic events early in his life and had run into trouble with the police a few times before the charge. A state psychologist testified that Davis was the “best student” in a juvenile school program and asserted that he’d “greatly benefit from involvement in the juvenile justice system where he can receive the necessary treatment for his academic and emotional struggles.”
That didn’t move the judge, who sent Davis to adult court because he had committed “a very grave serious offense.” The judge’s ruling denying Davis’ motion to transfer his case to juvenile court didn’t grapple with the testimony about the youth’s openness to rehabilitation. Based on that omission, the Court of Appeals ruled that the judge hadn’t properly weighed the evidence in his ruling.
The ruling sends the case back to Baltimore County Circuit Court for a hearing on whether it should be moved to juvenile court based on the new standard. There, Davis would be entitled to argue for a lighter sentence.
The ramifications go far beyond the Davis case because there are hundreds of people in prison who were sent there as juveniles, legal experts said.
Jennifer Egan, chief attorney for the Public Defender’s Office’s Juvenile Division, said the ruling sets a precedent that will allow defense attorneys to challenge similar cases where judges denied transfers to juvenile court in the past five years.