Maryland lawmakers are about to pass a bill they say will attack juvenile crime and improve public safety, but their top changes, which add strict penalties for 10- to 12-year-olds, may affect only a few dozen kids a year, state data shows.

Some lawmakers have warned all along that the revisions aimed at young children accused of stealing cars and carrying handguns would reach a small number.

But those crimes were serious enough to warrant expanding court jurisdiction, Del. Luke Clippinger said, as he, co-sponsor Sen. Will Smith and top Democratic leaders introduced the bill in January.

Lawmakers hope the new rules will expedite services to children making dangerous choices. While advocates worry the changes will do more harm than good.

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The bills passed by both chambers differ in how and when a child’s consequences will involve judges and state’s attorneys. But a final product is imminent. The legislature has committed to reconciling minor differences before the end of session, and Gov. Wes Moore has committed to signing a juvenile justice bill, as long as it holds youth and the adults who run the rehabilitative system accountable.

What’s less clear is why systemic changes are targeting this age group when so few are committing these crimes.

Youth offenders commit less than 10% of total crime, but the number committed by 10- to 12-year-olds is a fraction of that. Fewer still are accused of offenses specified in this year’s bill.

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

Del. Caylin Young, a Baltimore City Democrat, listens to floor debate at the Maryland State House on Monday, March 20, also known as Crossover Day in Annapolis. General Assembly session rules require bills to pass one chamber — either the House of Delegates or the state Senate — by the end of the day on Monday, to ensure the other chamber will consider it. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

”At the end of the day, they [lawmakers] are creating major legislation to address an extremely small population of kids,” Sen. Jill Carter said.

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Carter represents Baltimore and is one of eight Democratic lawmakers who voted against their chamber’s bill. The public defender and some legislators who spoke with The Banner said they had not seen the state’s numbers until a reporter shared them.

Sen. Charles Sydnor III also voted no. The Baltimore County Democrat said the low numbers revealed that “what we have been seeing on the news has been overblown.”

Del. Caylin Young of Baltimore voted against the bill and said he wants to “operate on data that’s going to make a difference.”

“You don’t need to change all of our laws to address the small number of children, in my opinion,” said Del. N. Scott Phillips, a Baltimore County Democrat who voted in favor of the bill. “And so, quite frankly, I think we need to resist what is taking place in terms of perceptions versus reality.”

Last summer, Maryland saw two horrific mass shootings with teens as perpetrators and as victims, an uptick in teens victimized by gun violence and possessing guns and an increase in auto thefts, a national trend sparked by a social media video teaching people to steal Hyundais and Kias.

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Although overall juvenile arrests have trended down in the last decade, according to the Department of Juvenile Services, these high-profile incidents caused public alarm. The media frenzy that followed wrought searing public pressure on top politicians, prosecutors and police.

At the state level, lawmakers harnessed control by holding a series of hearings, inviting all of the players to dissect the juvenile justice system. And one measure on the table was the choice they made two years ago to keep 10- to 12-year-olds out of the system.

Maryland Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi, center, speaks with Baltimore State's Attorney Ivan Bates, left, and Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha Braveboy at the State House in Annapolis on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. They spoke after Gov. Wes Moore held a press conference to announce public safety proposals. (Pamela Wood)

They heard from prosecutors and police who said they needed more legal tools to hold kids accountable and protect public safety.

In response to the low number of annual offenses, Wicomico County State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes said, “Even one incident is one too many.”

Having no consequences for children who carry guns and steal cars is “incredibly problematic” and sets a precedent for lawlessness, Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said.

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Gibson, who serves as president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said his jurisdiction doesn’t see many instances of 10- to 12-year-olds committing the offenses listed in the bill.

Others were wary of the state’s record keeping, saying the stats don’t reflect the number of children police arrest.

James Bentley, a spokesperson for Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, said juvenile services is “instructing officers to take the young person home before they have even decided against charging.”

“Baltimore City residents continue to be plagued by youth in this age group and those up to 18 who are not being engaged through DJS,” he said in a statement.

On average over the last four years, juvenile arrests in Baltimore are just over 5% of total arrests, according to an analysis of Baltimore Police arrest data by The Sentencing Project Director of Youth Justice Josh Rovner.

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Sen. Will Smith, left, and Del. Luke Clippinger, with Gov. Wes Moore standing behind them, field questions from reporters regarding their announcement of new juvenile justice legislation in the Maryland State House lobby on January 31, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Clippinger said the small number of allegations made against the 10-12 age group reflected numbers he has seen. The House Judiciary chair said the statistics show the bill doesn’t risk bringing a large swath of children into the system and should even serve to help kids suspected of these acts.

“When something like this happens, these are things where we do need to make sure that DJS is in the game sooner rather than later, so that there is more of a red flag,” Clippinger said.

He said he’s also counting on a sweeping oversight commission, also established by the bill, that will survey available resources and study how best to deliver services to children.

Bill critics have said recent reforms need more time to work before lawmakers tease them apart, that exposing children to the criminal legal system could bring poor mental and physical health outcomes and does not improve public safety.

Current law says 10- to 12-year-olds can be arrested for violent crimes but nonviolent offenders must be diverted from the system toward rehabilitative services, such as therapy, anger management training and restorative justice practices.

The small numbers confirm that elementary school-aged children are not a major source of crime but have become the centerpiece of a political agenda, said Melissa Rothstein, a spokesperson for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. The state agency frequently represents children accused of wrongdoing.

“These bills in their entirety are based on anecdotes instead of data, impulse rather than best practices,” Rothstein said.

David Jaros teaches law and serves as faculty director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. He said the bill is being “driven by politics, and often what is good politics is actually bad policy.”

“It’s bills like this that sort of reinforce this idea that we have to be fearful of children. Particularly, it reinforces stereotypes about children of color,” he said.

Maryland’s juvenile system disproportionately arrests, detains and incarcerates young Black boys, according to state data. A state analysis of the bill revealed outcomes, whether positive or negative, will continue to affect more Black youth than children of other races.

Jaros said the state should invest in neighborhoods and target the root causes of youth crime, such as poverty.

Bills like this, he said, “are a distraction from the issues that really matter.”

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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