Juvenile offenders are commonly handled differently in court than adult defendants. States such as Maryland have laws that govern what the court can do when juveniles are charged, including with very serious crimes, and many times they can even be tried as an adult when it is obvious that they are culpable and had predetermined intent to commit a criminal act. However, the focus tends to be on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. And now, with a ruling by the Maryland Supreme Court, it appears that avoiding an adult prison sentence is being included whenever possible when any juveniles are convicted on a felony charge.
Prior court policy
Maryland judges have historically allowed trying a juvenile as an adult when they are close to the age of majority and have been charged with serious criminal acts. There has also often been little to no consideration that the defendant was a possible candidate for rehabilitation under juvenile statute allowances. In the precedent-setting case involving a 17-year-old defendant who is still now incarcerated, the case now goes back to the lower circuit court where the criminal defense attorneys can emphasize the effectiveness that a rehabilitation program or treatment could provide, possibly changing the cycle of recidivism.
Reinforcing age limits and rehabilitation
Juveniles who are under age 16 typically are not charged as adults in most state court systems. Age has traditionally become less of a factor when serious crimes are committed, and especially when they are calculated acts. Prosecutors often abandon the juvenile principles of rehabilitation based on youth and lack of emotional development in these situations. Some defendant juveniles have experienced detrimental living issues from early in life and have not had a true opportunity to live without a connection to criminal involvement. This ruling sends a message to criminal courts that age still matters even when the defendant is near adulthood and that there are options to incarceration until the defendant comes of age.
The rush to judgment and sending a message to the public even when defendants are juveniles is assuredly an issue in the national discussion regarding current incarceration rates. The best opportunity for rehabilitation is clearly when defendants are young.