Maryland lawmakers have finalized changes to the state’s juvenile justice laws, expanding the consequences for young offenders and adding new tracking requirements.

The bill is now heading to Gov. Wes Moore’s desk, and the Democrat has said he will sign a juvenile bill into law as long as it includes accountability for youths and for the adults that run the juvenile system.

Democratic committee chairs Del. Luke Clippinger and Sen. Will Smith ushered the bills through their respective chambers on behalf of Democratic leaders Senate President Bill Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, and were able to reach compromises on many key provisions.

The bill decides consequences for children age 10- to 12-years-old caught carrying guns and stealing cars; gives courts the ability to expand probation; decides when state’s attorneys can review cases; and sets up sweeping juvenile legal system oversight and data collection.

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“I’m relieved the bill is done,” Clippinger said after the House took the final vote. “But I think there’s a lot more work to do.”

Clippinger and Smith spearheaded the effort to examine the juvenile services system after the state saw two mass shootings involving teens as victims and as suspects and an increase in teens stealing cars and possessing handguns.

They and their colleagues decided to alter recent reforms after law enforcement and prosecutors complained there weren’t enough penalties for the 10- to 12-year-old age group committing these crimes.

The Baltimore Democrat said it’s now time to “stop talking about the structure of the law” and for Moore and Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi to continue their work improving the agency. He said he doesn’t envy their task: “It’s a difficult agency to run on a good day,” he said.

“It’s going to require that collaborative action, consistently, to deal with the kids that have those most substantive issues, those really difficult issues,” he added.

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Clippinger has from the start acknowledged the raw emotions that come from discussing youth crime and structuring consequences for kids.

“We know we’re talking about kids, and we’re talking about their hopes, our hopes for their future,” he said.

Passions were on display from those who opposed the bill during the final House vote and by others who quietly signaled their protest by not voting at all.

Del. Malcolm Ruff, a Baltimore City Democrat, attends a news conference about the state budget in the Lowe House Office Building in Annapolis on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Baltimore Del. Malcolm Ruff, an attorney, was one of several Democrats who stood to explain his reasoning and were strictly kept to their two-minute limit by House Speaker Jones. Ruff said the data did not show 10- to 12-year-olds were a problem.

According to the last four years of available statewide data, an average of about 30 kids a year were charged with the crimes covered by the new law — handgun violations, auto theft, animal abuse and third-degree sex offense.

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“We know very well, from decades of study, that when you put someone into the criminal justice system, their trajectory immediately goes down,” he said. “We are going to be impacting the Black community in a way that is unfair.”

Ruff read from a state analysis of the bill that said Black children would be more affected than their counterparts of other races.

Del. Gabe Acevero said the changes made by recent reforms required more time to work, citing the state’s decision two years ago to implement evidence-based practices and reduce charges for 10- to 12-year-olds, except for crimes of violence.

“This [bill] is not how we keep our communities safe, and this is not how we deal with accountability as it relates to juveniles,” the Montgomery County representative said.

Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, a Montgomery County Democrat, sits in the House chamber on “crossover day” in the Maryland State House in Annapolis on March 18, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“I believe that there’s so much here that we can do to help our young people, but the way to do it is not through this legislation,” said Montgomery County Del. Charlotte Crutchfield.

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Del. Debra Davis has served on several legislative subcommittees on criminal justice, juvenile justice and public safety. The Charles County attorney and lawmaker said it was a “slippery slope” for the legislature to make decisions for Marylanders without data.

“I want the record to show that when they came for our babies, and the demonization of little Black boys and girls under my watch, I stood in opposition,” she said.

Across the hall, Sens. Jill Carter of Baltimore and Charles Sydnor of Baltimore County voted ‘no’ on the measures four times — both times in committee and twice on the floor. The pair said they could not support a bill without first seeing data that showed change was needed.

“This bill is more for show than it is for substantive change,” Carter said, referring to outsized media reporting on a handful of extraordinary examples of youth crime.

Republicans in both chambers favored the bill and encouraged the agency to improve services for children.

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House Minority Leader Del. Jason Buckel voted yes and said the finished product was a step in the right direction.

“Statistics are statistics, but to me one child carrying a gun into their elementary school is one child too many,” the Allegany County Republican said. “It doesn’t mean that child becomes a criminal, it means that child needs more interventions than what the juvenile system has provided them.”

What the bill will do

Starting on November 1, the court will have expanded jurisdiction over children ages 10 to 12 years old for certain crimes. Children charged with third-degree sex offenses or aggravated animal cruelty can face pretrial detention in a jail-like setting.

Those charged with firearms possession are eligible for community detention, which could mean at home with an ankle monitor or placed in a home-like setting under supervision while they await trial. Juvenile services will retain the ability to assess and decide detention for each case.

For children of this age group charged with auto theft, juvenile services must send the youth to a magistrate by filing a “child in need of services” petition. The purpose of the petition is to determine whether a child needs services, not to detain them.

The bill requires the juvenile services department to notify the court, the state’s attorney and the child’s attorney for each violation of supervision while on an electronic monitoring device, such as an ankle monitor.

The state’s attorneys offices will review cases in certain situations: cases of children who fail to complete service programs and new offenses committed by children while they are under juvenile services supervision.

The bill gives the court flexibility as to whether a child’s probation can be extended. Lawmakers wanting to ensure kids kept their court-ordered drug and mental health treatment programs looked for a legal way to make them go. They included in the bill measures that allow judges the flexibility to lengthen a youth’s probation if they have two unexcused absences, but does not require them to do so if they have mostly completed the program.

The purpose and mission of Maryland’s juvenile system is to rehabilitate youths by providing them services. This is based on the premise that there’s still time in a young person’s life to turn them away from criminal behavior.

Services such as anger management, cognitive behavioral therapy and restorative justice programs can guide children along a productive path while understanding the harm done by their choices.

Ahead of crafting the law, legislators uncovered a glaring lack of critical services for kids and long waiting lists. Clippinger said he hopes provisions in the bill, including a survey of all available services, can begin to fix this problem.

They have created a commission that will inventory and assess what exists, he said, whether it’s enough and the effectiveness of the programs. This is one of many oversight roles the commission will play.

The bill also codifies a youth gun violence prevention program and offices geared toward helping vulnerable youths and victims of violence. By doing so, they’ve solidified the executive orders penned by Moore in January that created a Governor’s Office for Children, separating it from the renamed Governor’s Office for Crime Prevention and Policy.

The program, called Thrive Academy, works with youths most at risk for committing or becoming victims of gun violence. Started by Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi, the effort wraps supports around at-risk youths and their families, and works with them in their communities to interrupt the root causes of violence and redirect their life path.

The bill also mandates that each school system create a policy on how they will educate youths convicted of sex offenses. Children have a constitutional right to an education, even those who have been convicted of crimes.

Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, sits in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Montgomery County Sen. Will Smith, a Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings committee, said the legislation is one piece of a broader plan. In the state budget, the legislature also invested $111 million in mental health programs in schools, $24 million to the juvenile services department for programing, and $43 million to the Governor’s Office for Children.

“We’ve taken a really comprehensive approach,” he said. “And this bill is just a critical part.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story.

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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