Local advocates aim to get juveniles out of adult jail

It was a cold January day in 2012 at house along Moores Mill Road in Bel Air. Then 16-year-old Robert Richardson decided he had enough.

While his father watched TV, lying with his back toward the teen, Richardson fired a shotgun into the back of his lone parent's head, killing him almost instantly.

Eileen Siple never thought she would ever find herself defending an admitted killer.

"He told me that sometimes, there is no other choice," she said. "You can take that however you want to take that. I know how I took that. I took that as he had no other way to be safe."

After all, Siple never knew the boy. Neither did a group of other Harford County mothers who would rally around Richardson almost immediately after his arrest.

For two years, every Saturday, Siple would visit the young man at the Harford County Detention Center learning a story of consistent physical and verbal abuse by his father.

Richardson was a battered child, his defense argued, and the murder he committed was self-defense.

Siple led the charge to tell his story and figuratively adopt the child.

There are pictures on her wall as if he is her own, a bedroom he is welcome to call his own when he gets out, and a wardrobe ready for what would have been his trial next month.

"Something horrible happened in January 2012, and I'm not making excuses for him and I'm not saying this is OK. But, he needed help before then, and he needed help after then. And, he spent the last two years not getting help," Siple said.

Richardson, although 16, was charged as an adult and spent two years in an adult county detention center awaiting trial.

A juvenile charged as an adult is a gray area of the justice system caught between a juvenile system that focuses on rehabilitation and an adult system that focuses on punishment.

In the middle are 14 to 17-year-olds charged with anything from a sex offense and first-degree assault to murder.

There are 33 triggers that can land a juvenile in an adult holding facility, but only one standard for how kids are treated.

Major Tanya Jackson runs the Harford County Detention Center, the adult facility where Robert Richardson spent two years.

"To the extent possible, we have to keep them separated by sight and sound," Jackson said.

Jackson could not talk about Richardson's case specifically.

Protecting juveniles involves keeping them in special confinement, separate from the adult population.

Richardson, his attorney says, spent 23 hours in a cell with only one hour out for most of his two years.

The state doesn't require adult jails to provide anything else, leaving it up to specific jails.

"We're not obligated to provide counseling or education, but again we want to meet that person at the point of their need," Major Jackson said.

Jackson said counseling and education are offered in the Harford County Detention Center, but the services are not mandated.

It's a forgotten population the state doesn't even count. Juveniles charged as adults have no rights other than physical separation from older hardened criminals, and in some cases, often by just a mere hallway.

Advocates say that experience only further hardens an impressionable and troubled group.

Kara Aanenson is with Community Law in Action, teaming with the Public Justice Center and Just Kids Maryland , the group is lobbying Annapolis to flip the script when it comes to charging juveniles as adults.

"We believe that kids should be held accountable for their actions. The point of this is that kids be held accountable and get the treatment that they need so they can come back to our communities and be safer," Aanenson said.

The issue, illustrated by a recent documentary called The Truth about Our Youth, argues to charge them all as juveniles and waive them up to the adult system if needed instead of jailing them as adults first.

"I think it's the right thing to do, I think it's the smart thing to do, I think it's the fiscally responsible thing to do and I think it's time that Maryland be a leader in this and really start treating kids in a manner that shows that we care about them," Aanenson said.

Because in Maryland, 70 percent of juveniles charged as adults eventually get waived back to the juvenile system anyway. A mere 10 percent of juveniles are convicted on their original adult charge.

The thought is, why subject all of them to what they may see and experience in an adult jail?

It is those statistics and Robert Richardson's story that got Eileen Siple so involved, setting up at least five rallies in front of the Harford County Circuit Court.

"Do you want them coming out and living next door to you having been locked up with hardened criminals and given no access to rehabilitation of education or therapy? Or, do you want them to go through an intensive program of rehabilitation and therapy and have an education," she asks.

Siple is just one part of a growing voice that hopes to change a culture; seeing first hand every week for two years what it has done for Richardson.

** Robert Richardson was sentenced to 18 years in prison after reaching a plea deal earlier this month.
He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a weapons charge in Harford County Circuit Court. He is currently housed at the Patuxent Institution Youth Program in Jessup. His attorney says there, he will finally get the counseling his supporters say he's needed for more than two years. **

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