On Wednesday, top lawmakers in Annapolis will provide their answer to the outcry for public safety when it comes to crimes committed by children and unveil their plans to build more accountability into the juvenile justice system.

Though youths commit a fraction of overall crime, including crimes of violence, state and local officials have spent months weighing criticisms over steps they’ve taken in recent years to prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration.

Senate and House leaders have said they’re reluctant to roll back those changes, but have indicated they’ll look to broaden accountability for teens — especially those who commit crimes with guns — and increase oversight for the agency responsible for turning them around.

“No matter what we pass — which we will and need to pass this legislation — it all comes down to execution on an everyday basis,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters Friday.

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Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson gives a briefing at the Miller Senate Office in Annapolis on Jan. 10, 2024. The 90-day General Assembly session convenes at noon Wednesday and will adjourn on Monday, April 8. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The Baltimore Democrat said lawmakers have been working for months, and the chambers are “almost fully at agreement” on the high-level issues.

Broadly, Ferguson said their strategy includes “accountability for the whole system”; swiftly delivering services, such as mentoring, to divert youths away from trouble and spending tax dollars efficiently. Overarching themes have included gathering better data on youths in the system and extending probation to give juveniles more time to access services.

More specifically, Ferguson said they’ll look at how the agency decides whether to detain youths.

The proposal revealed Wednesday will come from the legislature, but includes input from “robust” discussions with Moore and his administration, Ferguson said.

Moore: ‘I will not tolerate lawlessness’

But in the weeks leading up to the rollout, it’s been Moore who has taken the toughest stance on youth crime, demanding consequences for youths who pick up illegal guns and for repeat violent offenders.

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Any juvenile justice bill sent to his desk must include accountability measures, he said, but he has so far left alterations up to the legislature.

“I believe in rehabilitation, but I will not tolerate lawlessness,” Moore said, as he rolled out his own public safety package in January.

Maryland’s top Democrat said he’ll “use every tool at our disposal” to ensure public safety, such as the budget, executive orders, and partnerships with law enforcement and youth advocates.

And so far he has.

The first-term executive proposed a center to study gun violence as a public health issue and find ways to prevent it. Children are increasingly the victims of nonfatal shootings, and approximately 90% of homicide and nonfatal shooting victims are youth of color, according to juvenile services data from 2013 to 2022.

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Moore doubled down on his praise and support for his reform-minded Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi, put $16 million toward agency programs and backed Thrive Academy, Schiraldi’s nascent youth gun violence reduction program.

“If we put children into a system that makes them more likely to commit crime,” the governor said, “we’re doing it wrong.”

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announces proposals to combat violence and address violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore announces proposals to combat violence and address violent crime during a press conference at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Pamela Wood)

And with an eye on curbing youth crime, Moore created the Governor’s Office of Children.

Ferguson praised the move he said would ensure state agencies deliver support to underserved youths and their families.

Ferguson drew a connection between the children’s office and child in need of services referrals. These petitions, also known as CINS referrals, can be filed by anyone, but are mostly used by school officials and law enforcement to let the government know when a child needs help or intervention. While the number of CINS referrals has gone up, some police have said they’re reluctant to participate in a process they say lacks follow-through.

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Ferguson said in recent years state agencies lacked collaboration and oversight, and said the legislature will seek a way to track outcomes.

Consequences and outcomes

Tracking long term outcomes of system-involved youths and delivering “swift and certain” consequences has been mentioned many times by lawmakers. So has looking at the youth legal system as a whole — from a juvenile’s first interaction with a police officer, through state agency procedures and diversion, to prosecutors and courts.

“There are several points of failure along our system,” Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith said at a panel on the topic. “And I think our job during this legislative session is to identify those points of failure and to address them.”

The largest piece of the system is juvenile services, Smith said. Here, lawmakers plan to dissect the intake process and tools used to assess whether juveniles can be released to their parents ahead of adjudication.

“If you don’t have proper information, documentation about an individual, then the risk assessment tool is going to be faulty,” he said.

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Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he wants longitudinal data to track youths at all levels of risk for reoffending, not just those whose crimes lead to court. This goes for children whose cases are resolved by the agency and those who police repeatedly arrest.

“It’s not entirely clear that we’re following up with some of those those kids who need to be followed up with,” he said.

There’s also been some discussion of extending the length of juvenile probation. As part of a youth’s sentence, a judge can attach participation in services intended to develop positive life skills. These can include mentorship, job training, anger management or tutoring.

But in recent years, the availability of services has dwindled. Some nonprofit providers lost funding during the pandemic, and the agency, during Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, failed to fill vacancies. This void meant a lag in children getting what they needed and probation ending before a program could have been completed.

Clippinger said extending probation may be one way to keep juveniles in the system long enough to get the right amount of help.

But extending probation also extends the legal limbo for youths in the system.

According to state law, courts can already lengthen probation in three-month increments for misdemeanor offenses for up to one year, and in three-month increments up to three years for felony probation. And during a recent committee briefing, Schiraldi told senators probation isn’t needed to keep youths connected to services.

So why now?

State officials are weighing these changes this year after an increase in certain types of youth-involved crimes, whether violent, like carjackings, or nonviolent crimes like auto thefts.

Public alarm peaked this summer after two teens charged in connection to a Brooklyn mass shooting were at the time under the Department of Juvenile Services’ supervision. Meanwhile, a wave of adults and teens stealing Kias and Hyundais added to the frustrations of citizens.

The intense heat of public scrutiny forced politicians to hold city and state hearings on youth crime. During these meetings police and prosecutors complained the juvenile services agency was releasing children they believed should have been detained. They also said they were no longer able to interrogate children.

In the crosshairs were two laws: one that required that youths speak with an attorney before a police interrogation, called the Child Interrogation Protection Act, and another that, among other measures, shifted decision-making power to the juvenile services agency for youths who had committed nonviolent crimes, such as auto thefts.

That law, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, came after years of state-sanctioned research and recommendations made by a coalition. Their advice was informed by evidence-based, best practices for reducing youth contact with the juvenile legal system, and included avoiding detention for children who had committed misdemeanors.

The Reform Act also prevents children younger than 13 from being charged as adults, except in violent crimes. Law enforcement has complained about their inability to arrest children 12 and younger for misdemeanors.

What (likely) won’t be addressed

Lawmakers have not hinted at altering the Reform Act this session, other than possibly shifting the probation limits, and advocates have urged patience amid explainable spikes in some crimes and immense public pressure.

And lawmakers haven’t mentioned changes to the Child Interrogation Protection Act, another contentious reform passed in 2022.

Some police and prosecutors have said requiring children to have a pre-interrogation discussion with a lawyer keeps them from investigating crimes. While prosectors argued the law infringes on the parents’ rights to determine what is best for their child, others have said the requirement gives children more rights than what’s already provided in the U.S. Constitution.

The legislature won’t take up the Youth Equity and Safety Act, or YES Act, according to one senator who sponsored the bill last year. The measure would end Maryland’s practice of automatically charging youths as adults for violent crimes.

“Given the feeling of leadership that we need to really focus our energies on improving the Department of Juvenile Services this session, it doesn’t seem like it’s the right time to bring the bill again,” Baltimore Sen. Jill Carter said.

Maryland ranks fourth in the nation for the number of adults in prison who were incarcerated as juveniles, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Human Rights for Kids.

Carter has partnered with a cohort of representatives to champion the bill, and hopes it will be brought up again next session. Introduced in 2021, the YES Act bill has never made it out of committee in either chamber.