At a news conference to highlight the prosecutions of 20 young people on charges including armed robbery, carjacking and assault, Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said he had a message for parents and guardians.

“I want you to listen closely. Because I’m talking to you,” Bates said. “If you don’t remember anything else about this press conference, just remember two words: parental accountability.”

From here on out, Bates said, his office would look at bringing charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which carries a fine of up to $2,500 and a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Bates said he will seek to hold parents and guardians accountable who do not prevent or report delinquencies or reach out for further help to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Across Maryland, state’s attorneys infrequently bring charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and stated there is a high bar for proving these cases. Meanwhile, those including public defenders and youth justice reform advocates contend that parents need help — not prosecution.

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”This is much more about making headlines than providing kids and families with the support that they need,” said Alice Wilkerson, who’s part of the leadership team for the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition.

Later, Bates appeared on “The T.J. Smith Show” on WBAL NewsRadio and seemed to soften his comments. For him, he said, “it’s not about arresting parents.”

“If the parent says, ‘Look, my child will not listen.’ Then right then and there, that’s not a parent I’m looking to prosecute,” said Bates, a Democrat. “That’s a parent I’m looking to say, ‘What services can we give you to help you and to support you in this process?’

“Because we recognize some children just want to do what they want to do,” he added. “And some parents are beaten down emotionally, they’re working two, three jobs, they need that extra help.”

Bates contrasted that with a situation in which parents report that their son or daughter who’s not going to school is fine. That’s only for the police to arrest the child one week later at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. inside a stolen car.

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“I’m not trying to send you to jail. I’m not trying to split the family,” he said. “But gosh, we have to do something to say, ‘Parents, you must be held accountable.’”

In an email, James Bentley, a spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, provided scenarios that could result in prosecution.

Bentley described one in which police bring a child who’s on home detention with the juvenile services department back to his or her parents late at night multiple times during a two- or three-week period for being involved in robberies, carjackings or car thefts.

But the parents, he said, “did nothing to prevent their child from being out late at night or early in the morning with the same group of kids to commit additional crimes.” Bentley said that could result in charges if they do not try to intervene and call the juvenile services department, police or a social services agency.

He provided three additional examples:

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Bentley said there is no blanket rule, and the office will individually review each case. In most situations, he said, a first offense would lead to a referral to a parenting class.

Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan Bates said his office will look to charge parents and guardians with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $2,500 and a maximum sentence of three years in prison. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Contributing to the delinquency of a minor is rarely used across the state, said Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson Jr., who’s president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association.

Gibson said he could recall at least four cases in Howard County.

In one case, Howard County Police accused a mother of stealing more than $400 worth of merchandise from a Target in Ellicott City with her son in 2022. Law enforcement alleged in another case that a mother told her son, “Go for it” and filmed him fighting at the Elkridge Branch of the Howard County Library System in 2023.

Investigators in Prince George’s County brought the charge in 2016 against a man in a human trafficking case that arose out of an undercover prostitution sting.

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In an email, Queen Anne’s County Deputy State’s Attorney Leigh Darrell Dillon said the office has used the offense as an additional tool to “hold parents of habitually truant children responsible for their actions, when those actions contribute to their child failing to attend school.”

The crime, though, can be difficult to prove.

In 1983, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that there’s a two-pronged test to determine whether the state has proved the crime.

First, prosecutors must show that an adult “willfully contributed to, encouraged, caused or tended to cause an act, omission or condition.” Second, assistant state’s attorneys have to prove that rendered a child delinquent or in need of supervision or assistance.

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“You would need substantially more than just being a bad parent,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said.

If a judge has not already found a child delinquent or in need of supervision or assistance, the state needs to establish that would have happened, said Michael Stewart, special counsel at the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office. So, in a way, prosecutors end up having to conduct a “mini trial within a trial.”

People, he said, also have a right to a jury trial.

Stewart said its current juvenile prosecutor reported pursuing no cases in the last 2 1/2 years. An assistant state’s attorney who used to be in that role, he said, brought about five cases in more than a decade — and lost all of them.

“It ain’t easy,” Stewart said. “Is the juice worth the squeeze the way the statute’s written? I would say no.”

Shanta Trivedi, an assistant professor of law and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said there are few supports for parents across the United States.

Single parents working multiple jobs, she said, are “just hanging on.”

Trivedi said the charge is vague, and state’s attorneys have broad discretion. Research, she said, shows that law enforcement uses these laws against those who are the most marginalized, which would be Black or brown parents.

“He’s got a tough job, right? People are up in arms about crime. They’re up in arms about these kids,” Trivedi said. “We have a tendency as a society to respond in a reactionary, panicked way and create very terrible law and policy based on an emotional response.”

Parents need affordable child care, after-school programs and cash in their pockets to help them reduce stress and meet their basic material needs, Trivedi said.

“When you prosecute a parent, then what?” said Marguerite Lanaux, district public defender for Baltimore. “The parent has a conviction. So now you are further disenfranchising when it comes to jobs, rights, housing.”

“What have we really done and has that truly put the community as a whole in a better place?” she added.

Josh Rovner, director of youth justice for The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and incarceration, said he found Bates’ comments to be “callous and ignorant of the challenges that parents have in our state.”

“What parents need is support. They need help. They need compassion. And the state’s attorney wants to fine them and jail them?” Rovner said. “He shouldn’t be allowed near our children, and he shouldn’t be allowed near our families, if this is his response.”

Bates, he said, should be listening to his constituents. At the same time, Rovner said, the state’s attorney should follow the evidence.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone giving this serious thought and thinking that this will have a positive impact on our communities,” Rovner said. “The main impact it’s going to have is punishing parents who are already struggling — and adding another burden to their lives.”

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