As lawmakers in Annapolis weigh their first draft of a centerpiece juvenile justice bill, an independent analysis revealed the effects of the proposed changes — whether positive or negative — will disproportionately be experienced by Black youths who are already overrepresented in the juvenile system.

Just how many more children will be affected and in what ways couldn’t be measured because of a lack of available data, according to the racial equity impact note released Tuesday and prepared by the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

The report researched measures in the bill that would broaden the court’s jurisdiction over 10- to 12-year olds. Analyzing what else the bill will do, such as lengthening probation limits, increasing the likelihood of pre-court detention and shortening intake deadlines, also wasn’t possible because of a lack of data, the analysis said.

Current law sets the court’s jurisdiction at 13, except in cases where children ages 10 to 12 commit violent crimes. This year’s bill proposes making more 10- to 12-year olds eligible for arrest for crimes involving guns and weapons, auto theft, third-degree sexual assault and animal abuse.

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The change would bring more kids into the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services for processing, the report said, but did not predict how many more youths would be arrested, detained and adjudicated.

Here’s what else we learned from the analysis:

Racial disparities will continue

Black children account for about 30% of the state’s population under 13 but make up 64% of the number of kids from that age group that juvenile services processed in budget year 2023, according to the report.

So, as the system expands who can be arrested, the analysis anticipates that trend will remain.

But the report made clear there was “no reliable demographic data available to determine precisely how many youth under age 13 have been processed for each of the crimes addressed by the bill.”

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Nor is it clear whether the outcomes for Black children, or children of any race, will be positive or negative.

Children referred to juvenile services could receive needed help from juvenile services or the courts: “So this early intervention may benefit younger juveniles,” the report states.

Recent reforms intended for children under 13 to receive services like therapy and anger management through children in need of services referrals. But lawmakers found this referral process either wasn’t being used by law enforcement officers or services weren’t available.

Critics have faulted the bill for not mandating an increased supply of wraparound services for youths while creating an expected increase in demand.

There’s not a lot of data to say what the bill would do

Should the bill pass in its current form, the report said it’s possible more youths, including those over the age of 12, could be detained while waiting for a court date. Pre-court detention would expand to kids who receive more than two adjudications — the juvenile system equivalent of a conviction — and for youths who, while under juvenile services supervision, commit an offense that would earn an adult a 90-day jail sentence.

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However, the analysis does not say how many more children would face these outcomes because there was no available data. The same goes for expanding probation limits for misdemeanors and felonies.

Current law allows the juvenile services department broad discretion over which children are detained pre-trial, with some exceptions for more serious crimes.

The bill makes ‘comprehensive’ changes to juvenile law

While lawmakers aren’t making wholesale changes or rolling back reforms, this report does define the changes as “comprehensive,” as more young children would become eligible for arrest.

The influx of arrests will increase the number of cases referred to the Department of Juvenile Services, and possibly those forwarded to state’s attorneys and courts.

In advance of the session, Democratic leaders said they would not overhaul the juvenile reforms they passed two years ago, but rather make smaller adjustments. These statements came after the state invested in a yearslong bipartisan effort to survey and propose best practices for juvenile rehabilitation.

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In a pre-legislative session interview with The Baltimore Banner, Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones said the House planned to make “tweaks” to the law, and did not intend to overhaul the changes.

“Rollback is not under consideration,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson. But the Baltimore Democrat said a targeted approach to holding young kids who carry guns and steal cars accountable would be.

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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