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Baltimore youth work to reform criminal justice system ‘flaw’

By Trang Do
WYMR Baltimore
October 16, 2014

See the video and article here: ABC2News: Baltimore youth work to reform criminal justice system ‘flaw’

BALTIMORE - More than a thousand children accused of crimes in Maryland are automatically sent to the adult criminal justice system every year. A group of young people who were among those children are now working to change what they say is a flawed approach.

Natasha Robinson, 19 and Kevin Reverley, 22, have many things in common. They’re both college freshmen, raised in Baltimore, with an interest in criminal justice. They’ve also both seen the inside of adult jail cells.

“I was real scared and I just used to stay on my bunk and stuff and not talk to anyone,” Robinson said. “Just lay on the bed and cry.”

Reverley said, “you feel alone. You feel clueless because you never know what’s going to happen, especially when you’re fighting it.”

Robinson was just 17 when she got into a fight on a city bus with a girl she knew. It was the first time she’d ever gotten in trouble, much less arrested. She was charged with first degree assault. In Maryland, it’s one of 33 crimes that will automatically send juveniles to the adult criminal justice system, without a judicial review.

“I wasn’t aware of the severities of, I just always thought that you was a child, you did a crime, cause it was my first crime, my first charge too,” she said. “So I always thought, you was a child, you did something and your parents came and got you. I never thought it was like what I went through.”

In these cases, teens who aren’t able to post bail await their trials in adult jails. Young people in adult jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide. They’re also far more likely to be victims of sexual assault behind bars.

“There are actually only four jurisdictions that house those kids separately from adults,” said Kara Aanenson, director of advocacy for the Just Kids Partnership, a program of non-profit Community Law in Action (CLIA). “The rest of the jurisdictions either have kids mixed with the general population. So a 16-year-old could be sharing a cell with a 40-year-old, or they’re in solitary confinement, which means they’re in a cell for 23 hours a day and out only one hour.”

Aanenson said adult jails also aren’t required to provide services to juveniles in their care.

“Adult jails weren’t made for kids and so there are no services that are required by statute for these youth to be participating in,” she said. “There’s no school for them, the guards aren’t specially trained to deal with them.”

For Reverley, an attempted murder charge at 15 landed him in prison for four years. He spent his high school years alongside prisoners two and three times his age.

“What child is going to go in there like, you know, not in the right frame of mind and then come out better, in an environment like that?” he said.

That’s why once released, Reverley and Robinson made the choice to become leaders with the Just Kids Partnership. They now share their experiences, educating others on the issue through community events, meetings with lawmakers in Annapolis and screenings of Just Kids’ self-produced documentary, “The Truth About Our Youth.” Robinson has even testified before the General Assembly to advocate for laws protecting youth offenders.

“I think doing this, it makes people aware of the problem because a lot of people are not aware that this is happening,” Robinson said. “Even in school, I inform people about what’s going on in Just Kids and stuff like that.”

They’ve had successes over the years, including lobbying the state last year to abandon plans to build a jail in Baltimore for juveniles charged as adults. This year, they were involved in the passage of two bills, including one that requires the state to count the number of minors held statewide in adult jails. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that all juveniles charged with crimes start in the juvenile system. It’s a fight they’re going to continue in the next legislative session.

“The juvenile system focuses on rehabilitation,” Reverley said. “They have the proper resources to rehabilitate a child. The adult criminal justice system, the adult jails don’t have that. They focus on punishment and punishment only.”

Robinson is in a fight of her own to get her record cleared. But for now, a mistake she made at 17, continues to follow her.

“With the box, it’s like, me checking off, the question of being convicted,” she said. “I never get to talk once I check the box.”

The Just Kids Partnership is having its annual fundraiser on Wednesday, October 22 from 6pm to 8pm at The Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Baltimore, MD 21224. It’s called Art with a Story and will feature art and storytelling by Just Kids youth leaders. It is open to the public with a $15 donation.