In response to Maryland communities crying out for public safety, powerful committee leaders revealed proposed changes to juvenile laws they said were needed to keep some children from falling through the cracks.

Lawmakers explained during the Wednesday news conference that the system needed to change. They proposed measures they said will ensure that youths participate in their rehabilitation and will hold state and local officials accountable for outcomes.

Among a host of changes: Children age 10 to 12 can be charged with certain crimes, such as firearm possession and auto theft, and courts can extend probation limits so youths can complete rehabilitative services. These moves have disappointed advocates who say they reverse reforms intended to divert youths away from the legal system.

The plan announced Wednesday comes after months of public pressure on lawmakers to curb an increase in some types of juvenile crime. Ahead of the lawmaking session, legislators listened to law enforcement, public defenders, academics and more and pored over the system looking for gaps.

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“While youth offenders account for less than 10% of the crimes committed, unfortunately, it is clear that they become the largest part of the crime perception challenge in Maryland,” Senate President Bill Ferguson said.

The Baltimore Democrat said officials and lawmakers will use budget, legislation and executive orders to support state goals for accountability, rehabilitation and collaboration. And he implored state agencies to work together.

“We need all state and local agencies to collaborate across the system to ensure that families and kids are not slipping through the cracks,” he said.

House Judiciary Chair Del. Luke Clippinger called the bill a “comprehensive step forward,” but also acknowledged the challenges of drafting laws that impact the lives of children.

“It hits us in an emotional place because we don’t want to see kids that way,” Clippinger said from a podium in the State House. “We want to believe that they can do better, we know that they can be better. And yeah, sometimes they don’t.”

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And sometimes the systems in place to help rehabilitate juveniles simply don’t work, he said. He said the legislature has tried to find the best way forward to hold youths accountable, give victims confidence in the system and increase systemic oversight.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, standing by Gov. Wes Moore, announces new juvenile justice legislation in the Maryland State House lobby on Jan. 31, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Here’s how Clippinger and his Senate bill co-sponsor, Sen. Will Smith, outlined the proposal.

Clippinger cautioned the adjustments will take time and effort to implement.

“If you’re looking for the thing that is going to perfectly solve all of your problems, you’re not in the right place,” he said.

As Democrats unveiled their legislation, a few Republican lawmakers watched from behind the bank of TV cameras.

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Sen. Justin Ready, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said he found things to like in the proposal.

“Obviously there’s a lot there, and we haven’t had a chance to read the bill,” the Carroll County politician said. “But certainly the words that are being spoken are good.”

He said the bill appears to be “embracing” some Republican ideas, like expanding the crimes that a child younger than 13 can be charged with.

“We have been advocating, as Republicans, for a long time that we need to take this [juvenile crime] very seriously,” said Ready.

But he cautioned that the final version of the bill could end up looking very different in the end if “extreme special interests and far-left groups get involved” and the bill is watered down.

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Sen. Will Smith, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, announces new juvenile justice legislation in the Maryland State House lobby on Jan. 31, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Meanwhile, youth justice advocates said the proposals went too far and ignored recommendations made by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and state officials to keep kids out of the legal system. They also expressed concern the shift would entangle more youths of color in a system that, as evidence shows, does children harm.

“It is alarming that leadership seeks to return Maryland to policies that failed for decades and theories which are disproved,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a statement.

Maryland’s youth legal system disproportionately incarcerates youths of color, who are twice as likely to be detained and committed than their white peers, and far more frequently charges Black youths as adults, according to state reports.

“Maryland’s prior overuse of probation, detention and incarceration undermined public safety by damaging young people’s physical and mental health, impeding their educational and career success, and often exposing them to abuse,” said Josh Rover, director of Youth Justice for The Sentencing Project. “Governor Moore must work with the legislature to fix this dangerous proposal.”

Standing in solidarity with his legislative partners, Gov. Wes Moore said he would serve as an “engaged partner” in the process and that communities would also have a say.

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Moore and his administration have participated in discussions of the package, he said, and weeks ago unveiled public safety plans that don’t directly touch juvenile law.

“I’m confident that when the final version of this bill gets to my desk,” the Democrat said, ”I will enthusiastically sign it.”

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