Maryland’s House of Delegates advanced legislation revising consequences for children charged with crimes, as near-identical bills intending to improve public safety are moving through legislative chambers this week.

Democratic leaders said a law they passed two years ago must change to hold some of the youngest offenders accountable and connect them with treatment services.

The House is on track to give final approval this week, while the Senate could take up its version tomorrow.

Both bills broaden juvenile system oversight and data collection, expand the crimes for which young offenders aged 10 to 12 years old can be charged, give prosecutors added decision-making power and mandate services for kids who steal cars. The House version adds required services for kids under 13 who get caught carrying guns.

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The legislative process allows time for the chambers to make their bills the same.

House Judiciary Chair Del. Luke Clippinger said the bill adds “guardrails” to better hold youth offenders and the agency responsible for rehabilitating them accountable.

“When we’re screwing up in the services that we provide these kids, or when we allow the process to allow kids to, kind of, fall off the sides as we go along, that’s not good for anybody,” the Baltimore Democrat said.

As bills travel through the legislature to the chamber floors, it’s typical that lawmakers receive suggestions from stakeholders — in this case prosecutors, advocates, the Department of Juvenile Services and the defense bar.

Anne Arundel County Del. J. Sandra Bartlett, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the House version landed in a “moderate” place.

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“I don’t feel like anybody got everything they wanted. But everyone got some of what they wanted,” she said.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said Bartlett and Clippinger “put rehabilitation front and center in this bill.”

“By strengthening oversight of DJS, we will ensure that children are treated fairly and held accountable to their treatment plans,” she said in a statement.

The House rejected a few floor amendments from members of both parties.

Del. Jason Buckel, House minority leader, called the bill “a good step in the right direction” and said Clippinger is “doing his level best to confront this problem for the state.”

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The Allegany County Republican added that juvenile services will now need to address complex issues like children under 13 who steal cars. If diversionary programs aren’t there or aren’t effective, “I’m not sure that it’s going to solve the problem,” he said.

What are the changes?

Final amendments shied away from a first take announced in January, which critics warned would bring more children into the juvenile system.

Despite these adjustments, advocates and public defenders called these measures punitive, costly and said they would do harm by introducing more and younger children into the criminal legal system, a move not known to improve public safety.

“This [the bill] continues to unfairly focus on 10- to 12-year-olds for causing a crime perception problem, but not actually contributing to any increases in crime,” Alice Wilkerson said. Wilkerson heads the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition, a group of advocates and researchers that want to see the bill narrowed to focus only on firearms offenses and establishing oversight and data to chart a path forward, she said.

The coalition is hopeful lawmakers’ discussions will continue to pull back on their first draft.

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Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said the bill “does not rely on evidence-based research, but is fueled by sensationalized media inaccurately portraying children as the primary instigators of crime.”

Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said he looks at the process as he does a jury trial. He’s laid out his case and presented the facts, he said. “The legislature, I feel, are the jurors. They’re going to sit down, they’re going to weigh the information.”

“We’ve made our points,” Bates said. “The members of the legislature, they’ve heard it and now just need to take their time and figure out what’s going to be best.”

Here are examples of what the measures do:

Lawmakers have admitted that media reports spurred them to reconsider the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. But during the discovery process, they found gaps in the system that weren’t helping kids get needed help.

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During the legislative rollout, Senate President Bill Ferguson said crimes committed by teens, although less than 10% of overall crimes, have contributed to a “crime perception challenge.” And Clippinger, the House bill sponsor, said challenges with juvenile justice have been around “since time immemorial.”

Jones, the House speaker, said that kids were not being held accountable and were denied services because of “an abundance of confusion.”

“Egos, political agendas and arguments over process have filled the gap,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”

These clashes between agencies, which includes state’s attorneys, played out in public forums and spurred Moore to referee, telling public safety officials at all levels of government to “lead together.”

The 2022 law set a floor for the juvenile system at 13, except when 10- to 12-year-olds commit crimes of violence; established guardrails around probation; and prioritized diversion over incarceration for nonviolent crimes. The proposal was based on recommendations from a bipartisan cohort of lawmakers, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and youth legal system experts who studied best practices for keeping young people out of detention.

This year’s changes will walk back some of those recommendations.

David Jaros, law professor and faculty director for the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said national and state data does not support media narratives that juvenile crime is rising, but it does create pressure on politicians to act.

“And often, that response is not driven by good data or strong policy, but rather a need to be seen as doing something,” Jaros said.

He said it hasn’t been long enough for anyone to weigh the changes made by the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2022.

“Crime is the result of a lot of powerful social forces, many of which are frankly related to the economy and broad social dynamics that aren’t easily changed by just tweaking policy,” Jaros said.

Rather than adjusting probationary periods, Jaros said lawmakers should instead be funding services.

“Let’s start improving the opportunities for kids,” he said. “Because that stuff’s been shown to keep people out of trouble and make our communities safe.”

Brenda Wintrode covers state government, agencies and politics. Before joining The Baltimore Banner, Wintrode wrote an award winning series of long form investigations for Wisconsin Watch.

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