Juvenile justice stakeholders told state lawmakers Wednesday to hold the line on reforms they passed one year ago amid public concern and amplified media attention on rising youth gun violence and a spike in auto thefts.
During the second in a series of briefings, the powerful House Judiciary Committee opened the year-old Juvenile Justice Reform Act to dissection.
However, most of those invited spoke in support of the law and urged lawmakers to stay the course, warning that reverting to failed policies is not the path forward.
“The Juvenile Justice Reform Act remains a good decision,” said Nathaniel Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice strategy group. Balis sat on the advisory council created in 2019 during Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to research best juvenile justice practices. Their advice, an accumulation of more than two years of study, contributed to changes intended to reduce youth contact with the juvenile legal system and remove barriers to vulnerable youth receiving services.
Those services could include job training, family counseling, mental health care and behavioral coaching.
Nick Moroney, director of the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, acknowledged the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is “not perfect.” However, “I don’t think we should go back and revisit all the things that have already failed,” he said.
Moroney urged lawmakers to exercise patience. His group, which falls under the Office of the Attorney General, performs unannounced audits of juvenile services facilities and publicly reports its findings each quarter.
Isolating children in secure detention facilities does not reduce recidivism in the same way that individualized and specialized care from wraparound services does, he said. Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi’s attempts to further research-driven policies have only just begun and are likely to improve outcomes, Moroney said.
Lawmakers initiated the hearings after a rise in certain types of youth crime caused law enforcement officials to raise alarm about the reforms.
Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat and chair of the committee, said it’s not too soon for legislators to examine the new law for holes, especially as they hear feedback from law enforcement and the juvenile services department.
“We have to go through and do what we need to do to make sure that kids are getting the best services, that victims [of juvenile crimes] are getting the best services,” he said.
Justice for victims means getting the accountability part right, he said, which includes kids receiving promised services.
Clippinger said lawmakers passed the law with the understanding that the Department of Juvenile Services had the capacity to provide programs and services, “and when you have a broken agency that makes it a lot harder to do.”
The agency’s new secretary as of August had cut agency vacancies by more than half.
What does the data say about youth crime?
Youth crime rates have trended down across the country in the last two decades. Maryland has seen a 61% decline in complaints, the juvenile justice equivalent of an arrest, in the last 10 years.
But some types of violent crimes have skyrocketed, including handgun violations and carjacking, which is taking a car by force. Auto thefts have also climbed due to a social media challenge teaching youth how to steal Kias and Hyundais. Teen arrests on murder or attempted murder charges in Baltimore City have also increased over the last five years, while fluctuating in other parts of the state, according to juvenile services.
And teens are also a fast-growing population of gun violence victims. Since January, 108 teens ages 13-18 have been shot in Baltimore, according to a Baltimore Banner analysis. The number of youth homicide victims is up 88% since 2018, according to the Maryland State Police.
The Juvenile Justice Reform Council, made up of lawmakers, agency officials and other stakeholders, is also responsible for suggesting the state raise the minimum age of juvenile services’ jurisdiction to 13, with some exceptions for children over 10 who had committed certain violent crimes. Children younger than 13 can be flagged as a “child in need of supervision” and still receive supports.
But law enforcement officials, including state’s attorneys, have spoken out against these changes, saying they have limited their ability to maintain public safety. Raising the age to 13 limits the state’s ability to detain young children who may have committed crimes without consequences, they say.
Clyde Boatwright, president of the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police, blamed the layers of review over police procedures as an “integral reason” youth arrests are down.
“Think about the pressure to check every box to ensure you’re not the person in handcuffs at the end of an encounter,” he said.
“Our job is to enforce the law without bias or prejudice,” he said, and it’s a false narrative that police want to lock up more youth.
Boatwright said more education for the state’s thousands of active-duty police officers is needed and they should, when applicable, refer children for services. Juveniles need services and adults need to be held accountable, Boatwright said.
He promised Del. Charlotte Crutchfield, a Montgomery County Democrat, he would encourage police chiefs to promote the “child in need of supervision” referral as a tool.
From June 2022 to March 2023, the number of “child in need of supervision” referrals nearly quadrupled from that same period one year earlier. And the number of rearrests of those under 13 dropped to one-third of what it was the prior year.
Juvenile Services Communications Director Eric Solomon said the department is continually examining and improving services for youth and “works closely with its partners, including law enforcement, the State’s Attorney’s Office and other juvenile justice stakeholders, to make decisions.”
The committee will hold its next briefing Dec. 5.