Lawmakers, public defenders, police, prosecutors and state officials gathered in a marathon meeting over video on Wednesday to confront Maryland’s problems with juvenile crime head-on.
For five hours, they defended their own actions to help kids and combat crime, while pointing out other areas that need changes. Despite disagreements, all said they hope to reduce instances where children are perpetrators or victims of violence.
When children commit crimes and carry guns, “it’s a failing in my mind of all of us, a global failing,” said Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, who led the meeting at the request of Speaker Adrienne A. Jones.
The meeting was the first step toward potentially making changes in the law to address troubling levels of juvenile crime when lawmakers return to session in January.
The hearing was scheduled for three hours but stretched to five as the participants wrestled with the complex problem. Here are some key takeaways.
Police, prosecutors slam limits on child interrogation
The most intensely debated issue before the committee is a relatively new law that governs how police officers can question minors. The Child Interrogation Protection Act requires that a parent or guardian be notified before police can question a minor in custody, and the child must be given a chance to speak to an attorney.
Representatives from law enforcement and prosecutors said the new restrictions limit their ability to investigate crimes involving young people.
Acting Deputy Chief Zachary O’Lare of the Prince George’s County Police Department, who spoke on behalf of police chiefs and sheriffs, said interrogations of children are “severely curtailed” by the new law.
As an example, he said, there have been teens suffering drug overdoses in his county. O’Lare alleged that police officers cannot question those using and selling drugs in high schools to determine the supplier of the drugs to stem the problem.
Sometimes, he said, when children are picked up by police, their parents want them to come clean with the officer and face the consequences. “That parental right has been taken away,” O’Lare said, with public defenders advising minors not to talk.
State’s attorneys also have problems with the interrogation law.
Jamie L. Dykes, state’s attorney for Wicomico County, said the law has slowed investigations into gang-related shootings that she said are plaguing Salisbury. It’s taking longer, she said, for police to get enough evidence to charge people who are continuing to stoke the rivalries before being arrested.
Police are trying to keep the peace “with their hands tied behind their back,” she said.
One Republican lawmaker, Del. Chris Tomlinson, framed the issue of children speaking to police as one of parent’s rights — a rallying cry often used by conservatives aiming to exert more control over public schools.
Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said the question of balancing the rights of children versus their parents may ultimately be decided in court if the law is challenged.
Defenders laud interrogation limits
The public defenders who represent nearly all children in the criminal system, meanwhile, said the limits on interrogating minors are an important way to ensure their constitutional rights are upheld.
Jenny Egan, chief of the Baltimore juvenile division of the Office of the Public Defender, said research shows that children don’t always understand their rights as adults do, and often will agree to things they don’t understand in order to please adults or to avoid “looking dumb.”
Children need to be carefully walked through their Miranda rights — including the right to remain silent and the right to have an attorney — before deciding whether or not to speak to police, Egan said.
Asked about parental involvement in the decision, Egan said parents are informed, but the ultimate decision rests with the child.
Natasha Dartigue, the chief public defender for Maryland, said the law has been applied unevenly, with some police departments complying better than others.
“We need greater education across the state of law enforcement as to what the law says and what it does,” she said.
Secretary Schiraldi on the hot seat
State Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi spent two hours fielding questions from lawmakers about the data trends of crime and what his department is doing.
Schiraldi punctuated his remarks by saying that conversations about violent juvenile crime must be held in context of teens’ easy access to guns.
“If there weren’t so many guns in our neighborhoods, so many of our young people wouldn’t be being injured or killed,” he said.
During questioning, Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, drilled down into the intake process, risk assessments and agency bumbles that have possibly been caused by the vacancies Schiraldi inherited and a lack of resources for wraparound services.
Schiraldi, just under eight months into his new job, pulled answers not just from data but 40 years of criminal justice reform research and practice. He also acknowledged that some issues, such as depleted staff and lack of community services, will take time to rectify. However, he had cut agency vacancies by more than half as of August.
Need for services
Lawmakers spent a significant amount of time questioning the presenters about the range of options to rehabilitate children in trouble.
Schiraldi talked about new types of programs the Department of Juvenile Services is trying, including one called the Thrive Academy that will provide intensive support, including life coaches and skills training, for kids at risk of engaging in gun violence or being shot.
He acknowledged that the scope of treatment and therapy available to kids in the juvenile system has deteriorated over the last several years. “We’re not going to rebuild the continuum of care that’s been somewhat decimated over the years with the press of a button,” he said.
Egan, from the public defender’s office, said that while the Department of Juvenile Services has worked quickly to reestablish therapy programs to address the needs of young offenders and their families, that’s not enough. Mental health support needs to be available publicly, outside of the juvenile justice system.
“You should not have to be arrested to access them,” she said.
DJS helping in Brooklyn investigation
Baltimore Police have not said much about how they are investigating a mass shooting in the city’s Brooklyn neighborhood in July that injured 28 and killed two people — almost all teens and young adults. But Schiraldi acknowledged under questioning that DJS has had a role.
Clippinger asked Schiraldi whether his agency had cooperated with Baltimore City Police detectives on the Brooklyn Homes shooting investigation. Did his agency give BPD a list of teens whose electronic monitoring devices indicated they were at Brooklyn Homes at the time of the shooting?
Schiraldi acknowledged his agency immediately cooperated with police and gave them the names of any youths under supervision who were “in the vicinity” of Brooklyn Homes that night.
So far, five teenagers have been charged with various offenses related to the shooting; it’s not clear whether any of them were already involved in the juvenile justice system.
The Maryland Judiciary was expected to participate in Wednesday’s meeting, but the representative had to leave before the meeting concluded. The next meeting will take place on Nov. 8 in Annapolis. The Fraternal Order of Police and the Office of the Attorney General are expected to attend future meetings.