Photo by Matt Bush/WYPR.

When Baltimore City resident Jabriera Handy was 16 years old, she got in a fight with her grandmother. A few hours later, her grandmother died of a heart attack, apparently as a result of the fight.

Handy was charged with second-degree murder, second-degree assault and first-degree assault. When teenagers are charged with those crimes in Maryland, they are charged as adults and their cases proceed in the adult court system.

After 11 months in an adult jail, Handy went to court, two days before her 18th birthday. Worried that turning 18 could mean a worse sentence, Handy pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a lower-level charge that sent her case back to the juvenile system.

Handy testified before the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday in support of a bill that would require all cases involving juvenile defendants to begin in juvenile court. Under current Maryland law, there are 33 crimes that automatically send children to adult court. Handy is among a group of advocates who have been trying and failing to change that law for the last 13 years. Those advocates and their allies in the legislature hope that this year’s bill will finally succeed.

“When it comes to the prohibition on children contracting, the prohibition of children working, the prohibition on children’s smoking, drinking or voting, the prohibition as of last year on children marrying, we protect children from all of these things because we say you’re not ready to do that yet,” Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, told the committee Thursday. “But only in one area of the law do we say, ‘OK, because you are accused of something, because there is a mere allegation against you, we’re going to wipe out all this evidence that you’re a child — we’re not going to treat you as a child.’”

According to data from the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022, 632 Maryland children were charged with crimes that automatically landed them in adult court. More than a third of those children were charged with illegal gun possession. Other common crimes included carjacking, assault, armed robbery and murder.

In contrast to Maryland, Virginia has only two crimes that automatically land a minor in adult criminal court: murder and aggravated malicious wounding, said Josh Rovner, director of youth justice at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

He said eight states already start all juvenile cases in juvenile court.

“Per capita, only Alabama sends more of its kids into adult court based on the initial charge than we do,” Rovner told lawmakers.

In Maryland, the overwhelming majority — more than 80% — of children automatically charged as adults are Black.

Read more (and listen) at WYPR.

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