As Maryland lawmakers hash out whether to again change child conviction laws, the Baltimore area’s top prosecutors want constituents to tell their State House reps one thing.
“The email you should send them is ‘juvenile crime is out of control — reverse the Juvenile Justice [Reform] Act,’” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger told a group of well over 100 listeners during a rare joint Baltimore City-Baltimore County town hall Wednesday night.
Calls by prosecutors and residents to change recently reformed laws surrounding sentencing for kids have mounted in recent months amid increased car thefts and gun violence involving children under 18 — including the Brooklyn Homes mass shooting — and despite a state report that criminal complaints against minors have trended downward for the last decade.
Wednesday’s public safety town hall in Cheswolde, organized by Baltimore County Councilman Izzy Patoka and City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, came shortly after Maryland lawmakers and public safety officials began meeting this month to discuss possible changes in juvenile crime laws when the General Assembly returns to session in January.
Dozens of city and county residents who addressed public safety officials and councilmen want to undo General Assembly changes enacted in the last two years that eased statutes surrounding eligibility for juvenile court action — making it possible for some youths to avoid the court system entirely —and set limits on probationary terms for kids who commit certain offenses.
Indeed, Banner analyses have showed that gun violence involving high school-age teens has become more frequent, with 84 minors shot in the city last year alone; Baltimore County does not make such crime data publicly available. But the higher number of children being shot was not mentioned by the dozens of city and county residents who addressed greater Baltimore’s prosecutors, police chiefs and councilmen in the Edward A. Myerberg Center.
Most who spoke want harsher penalties levied against minors who commit offenses like theft or carrying a weapon. They cited anecdotal fears of youth drag-racing on Northern Parkway, loitering around gas stations where they might sell drugs, stealing and breaking and entering.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates told town hall attendees that changes to Maryland’s criminal code since 2021 related to sentencing children have tied state’s attorneys’ hands.
“We do not have first dibs in terms of what would happen with this juvenile,” Bates said; that’s “extremely” concerning to prosecutors, he added.
Maryland has one of the highest rates in the country of prisoners who were sentenced as children, according to a 2021 report released in May by the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids. Those numbers reflect the state’s past “tough-on-crime” sentencing policies that stand in contrast to more rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice policies.
Still, charging minors as adults for a set of 33 offenses remains the standard among Maryland prosecutors’ offices; criminal justice reformists have tried more than a dozen times to end the practice of automatically charging youths as adults, instead requiring all defendants who are minors to begin their cases in juvenile court.
Gov. Wes Moore in his first term has pledged to make more changes to a juvenile justice system that disproportionately jails Black kids; and his appointment of nationally known criminal justice reformer Vincent Schiraldi has focused the spotlight on preventing children from winding up in the penal system.
But Moore’s vision is out of concert with the tough-on-crime approach that Bates and Shellenberger want the state to return to.
Moore wants public agencies responsible for connecting vulnerable children with basic necessities to have more of a central role in treating children in the juvenile justice system, and keeping them out of it in the first place. Baltimore’s Democratic prosecutors want more authority in deciding how to charge kids with certain offenses, and lament that such decision- making now falls to the Department of Juvenile Services.
“Four years ago,” Shellenberger said, prosecutors could bring a 12-year-old who carried a gun to school to juvenile court “and have a judge find out what’s wrong.”
“Because of the Juvenile Justice [Reform] Act, we can’t do that,” he said.
“We need to get that family and that juvenile all the help we can,” the five-term prosecutor continued, so “when they’re 17, hopefully I don’t have to lock them up.”
The next legislative meeting to hash out juvenile justice system changes will take place on Nov. 8 in Annapolis, and the Fraternal Order of Police and the Office of the Attorney General are expected to attend.