In the days since Democratic leaders unveiled their solution to curb juvenile crime, opponents and proponents have raced to decide what the changes would mean for Maryland’s juvenile system.

If passed, the new law supported by Gov. Wes Moore would peel back years of consensus building, community input and bipartisan collaboration that helped write laws meant to keep children out of the legal system.

Public debate begins Thursday on the bill, which adds criminal charges for 10- to 12-year-olds, extends probation limits and punishes youths for missing drug and mental health treatments.

“What happened here is that our committees held a couple of hearings, met in secret to craft the bill, introduced the bill three business days before the hearing, and now we’re all scrambling to understand what the impact will be,” said Josh Rovner, director of youth justice for The Sentencing Project.

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The bill reverses the Juvenile Justice Reform Council’s recommendations to keep kids under 13 from being charged, except when they commit violent crimes, and keeping probation time short.

“The reason it [the council] did that is because especially for young children, court involvement is really toxic,” Rovner said. Court involvement and detention impede children’s educational and occupational outcomes and fails to improve public safety, according to research.

“In an effort to crack down on the most serious crimes, this bill instead focuses attention on youth charged with misdemeanors and young children,” Rovner said. “It also avoids the use of diversion, which is likely to have better outcomes than formal court involvement.”

Lawmakers say expanding the number of chargeable offenses and lengthening probation times is necessary to connect kids to rehabilitative services, such as mentoring, anger management and tutoring, but have not included immediate plans to scale up those resources. Moore, however, included $16 million in his budget for juvenile services programs.

Law enforcement and prosecutors who have criticized current juvenile law say they favor the changes, with some amendments. They would like to loosen a law that requires children in custody meet with a lawyer before submitting to a police interrogation and want retain police discretion to divert low-level offenders to local programs instead of arresting them.

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All sides seem to agree that children should be held accountable and receive services quickly — there’s just a difference of opinion on how that should happen.

Heather Warnken, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore, previously did an assessment of how Baltimore fails victims and witnesses of crimes, particularly young Black men. (Shan Wallace)

‘Sad commentary’

Rovner isn’t the only advocate to say the bill was rushed and written without input from policy experts. Critics argue it will fail to improve public safety and needlessly pull more children into the legal system. They also question whether data was used and if conservative media narratives and public perception influenced politicians’ first draft.

Baltimore political organizer Dayvon Love said processing kids through the juvenile justice system should not be the way children get access to services.

“That is a sad commentary if that is the way young people have to get the services they need,” he said. Love is the director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an advocacy think tank.

Politicians and law enforcement aren’t alone in wanting accountability. Youth advocates do, too, even when it comes to Maryland’s youngest offenders, said Heather Warnken, executive director at the Center for Criminal Justice Reform for the University of Baltimore School of Law.

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Warnken opposed measures that would put more kids in the system and acknowledged communities face serious public safety challenges that require rigorous solutions, including safety for youths, who are increasingly the victims of violent crimes.

“What we’re saying is there are better, more effective, more humane ways of not just addressing the public safety challenges, but actually holding a young person accountable in a way that actually can change the trajectory of their life and their behavior,” she said.

The bill is loaded with technical changes, Warnken said, including one that would permit children who have committed misdemeanors to be detained while they’re waiting for their juvenile trial.

One example would be if a child commits a misdemeanor while under juvenile services supervision. If the crime would warrant 90 days in detention for an adult proven guilty, a child could be placed in detention prior to adjudication — before they have been found guilty.

Under Maryland law, thousands of crimes are punishable with a minimum 90-day sentence, according to the Maryland Judiciary.

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Warnken said the bill does not seek solutions to the root causes of violence and other crime.

“We know that what young people need to heal and to thrive and to desist from harmful behavior — especially when that is driven by trauma and lack of resources and opportunity — and yet, we’re not doing the things that we know we need to do to address that,” she said.

Researchers offer input

The bill allows children ages 10-12 to be arrested for nonviolent crimes, such as firearm possession and auto theft. It also gives prosecutors more sway over cases and strips some decision-making authority from the Department of Juvenile Services. Maximum limits for misdemeanor and felony probation would expand, and kids with two unexcused absences from drug treatment or mental health appointments could have their probation reset, according to the bill.

“What I think this bill clearly does, is it makes the juvenile justice system in Maryland bigger,” said Nate Balis, the director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “And at each phase, it introduces — it seems intentionally introduces — more young people into each phase of the system.”

If the aim of the bill was to swiftly deliver services to youths in need, adding time onto probation will not achieve that, Balis said, but it will increase the probation population.

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Ruth Rosenthal, a project director with Pew Charitable Trust Courts and Communities Project, said there’s still limited research on what length of probation is most effective. Youths who are diverted to services however, are less likely to get rearrested than kids who receive probation, she said.

Rosenthal studies best practices for juvenile justice systems and provides technical assistance to states focused on improving outcomes, reducing costs and improving public safety.

Maryland’s last decade of data revealed that as more youths were diverted away from the legal system, the use of probation also declined. And so, too, have the number of juvenile arrests.

The state's attorneys listen during Gov. Wes Moore's press conference to announce public safety proposals, from left: Howard County State's Attorney Rich Gibson, Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha Braveboy and Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan Bates. Moore held the press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
State’s attorneys listen during Gov. Wes Moore’s press conference to announce public safety proposals. From left: Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy and Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates. Moore held the press conference on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Pamela Wood)

Prosecutors, law enforcement support, but ...

“We all agree that the faster delivery of services is the gold standard,” said Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson. Speaking as president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys Association, he said the bill is not perfect, but is a “significant, meaningful step in the right direction.”

Gibson supports the bill cutting the time juvenile services has to evaluate a case. Though his office doesn’t prosecute every case they get, “evidence can go stale the longer they’re [juvenile services is] sitting on it,” he said.

He’s supportive of the ability to detain youths for misdemeanor crimes, involving prosecutors earlier in the intake process and resetting probation for unexcused absences from court ordered drug and mental health treatments.

The juvenile system is rehabilitative, not punitive, he said, and allows children who commit crimes to be held accountable and get the services they need.

“Society doesn’t work well when there’s no consequence to a violation of our rules,” he said.

Gibson’s association and the police chiefs and sheriff’s associations said they’re in favor of the bill, but would like to see changes made to the child interrogation laws so parents can decide whether children should speak with police. Lawmakers did not make changes to the Child Interrogation Protection Act, and have not signaled they would.

Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble said he’ll suggest an amendment to give law enforcement discretion over diverting youths away from the system. Gamble serves as president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.

The bill mandates police refer all youth encounters to juvenile services, where current law gives law enforcement discretion not to charge kids accused of low-level offenses. Gamble said it’s not necessary to charge in every case.

In Talbot County, Gamble’s team would rather divert first-time, nonviolent offenders to Teen Court, a program run by his jurisdiction, because they can do so immediately.

Children can receive counseling, drug and alcohol screenings, be referred for treatment if necessary, and make amends for their offense. He said once they’ve completed the program requirements in their community, they can go on with their lives without ever interacting with the formal juvenile system.

“We care about these kids,” he said. “They live in our communities.”

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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