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Staff writer

Concerned that individuals from low-income communities or unstable families are receiving harsher criminal sentences as adults, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender wants state sentencing guidelines to take into account more details of offenders’ juvenile records.

James A. Johnston, the supervising attorney for the Youthful Defendant Unit of the Office of the Public Defender, urged the Maryland State Commission on Criminal Sentencing Policy last week to change or remove the juvenile court involvement from the adult sentencing process.

“A juvenile’s involvement is not a reliable means to determine the individual’s propensity for future criminal activity,” Johnston said at the commission’s annual public hearing session Dec. 11 in Annapolis.

Juveniles from low-income communities might not have the social services available to them that youths from wealthier communities have, so judges may commit them to the Department of Juvenile Services more often for their own well being, rather than because their delinquency is more severe, Johnston said.

Part of the sentencing guidelines used in the state’s circuit court system is an offender score, which takes into account the history of an individual. That score then is combined with an offense score, which ranks the seriousness of a crime to determine the recommended sentence range. Judges are free to disregard the guidelines but must give a reason for doing so.

The guidelines assign points based on the number of contacts a youth has had with the juvenile court system but do not take into account the severity of the offense. The guidelines also consider whether the youth was committed to the Department of Juvenile Services but do not consider the circumstances surrounding the court’s decision to commit the youth.

One point is assigned for two or more findings of delinquency or one commitment to DJS, and two points for two or more commitments.

One point could mean anywhere from an additional few months to an additional five years in prison, depending on the type and seriousness of the criminal offense.

“The commitment of a child to DJS is often based only in part on the nature of the delinquent act,” Johnston said in a written statement submitted to the commission. “A child’s medical, mental health and educational needs may weigh in favor of commitment. The unavailability of appropriate services in the community or the inability of a child to access them may also lead to a commitment.”

Only offenders younger than 23 have their juvenile record taken into account.

In effect, said commission member Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore), this subjects children from unstable families and low-income communities to harsher sentences than those from families and communities with more resources.

The commission agreed to assign the issue to the sentencing guidelines subcommittee at its next meeting and work with the public defender’s office to address possible changes.

Almost every state uses juvenile records in some way in the sentencing guidelines, said David A. Soule, executive director of the commission.

“Juvenile delinquency is one of the strongest indicators of the likelihood that an individual will commit a crime later in life,” Soule said. “But if that’s being applied unfairly, it’s definitely something the commission should look at.”