Maryland’s top political leaders unveiled legislation Wednesday meant to increase accountability for juvenile offenders and the adults who run the juvenile justice system, which one leading lawmaker said was struggling in an “abundance of confusion” without meaningful oversight.
Democratic Gov. Wes Moore gathered with leaders of the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, to roll out the measure at a news conference.
“We need accountability when someone repeatedly violates the law, yes, but we also need accountability for the adults and the systems responsible for preventing and responding to those situations,” Moore said.
The governor said he believes the state needs to rethink how cases are processed for young people when there is a firearm involved, a key part of the legislation.
“We need to increase probation when kids need more time to benefit from rehabilitation,” Moore said.
A major part of the bill would expand the jurisdiction of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services to children under 13 for firearms-related offenses, car thefts, third-degree sexual offenses and animal abuse.
The measure would also require documentation of youths taken into custody by police to eliminate gaps in information-sharing between law enforcement and the Department of Juvenile Services.
It also includes provisions to ensure youths are participating in the rehabilitation process.
“We’re going to increase the possible length of probation to ensure kids are receiving and participate in the rehabilitation that they need,” said Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, said the measure also combines oversight boards in different agencies to bring together schools, law enforcement, the public defender, advocates for children, and kids who have gone through the system.
“The collaboration that is missing in this system is unacceptable,” Clippinger, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said. “Everybody does just enough to check the box, but nobody does enough to coordinate with one another to look at the kids — the kids who are in the system and to figure out how we’re going to move them forward and how we’re going to rehabilitate those kids.”
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said that while youth offenders account for less than 10% of the crimes committed, concern around community safety and juvenile crime has risen in the past several years.
“The simple truth is that the juvenile justice system in Maryland is not working optimally to provide the best outcomes for children and families,” Ferguson said.
House Speaker Adrienne Jones said that juveniles in the system are not getting the services they need and that agencies aren’t sharing information with one another. She said “right now, there is no meaningful oversight of this process.”
“Let me be clear, right now juvenile offenders and the services and accountability they need are separated by an abundance of confusion,” Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said. “Egos, political agendas and arguments over process have filled the gap. This is unacceptable. Juveniles need clear pathways to rehabilitation and a system of accountability.”
Maryland Republicans described the measure as an encouraging step.
“It is refreshing to see an acknowledgment that some of these recent juvenile justice reforms have gone too far,” said Del. Jason Buckel, the House minority leader from western Maryland. “Reinstating the Department of Juvenile Service’s jurisdiction over 10 to 12-year-olds found in the possession of firearms is an issue we championed last year and continue to advocate for.”
But the measure brought swift criticism from Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, who pointed out that lawmakers approved a juvenile justice reform measure about two years ago “to correct Maryland’s rating as one of the worst human rights offenders for children in the criminal legal system.”
Dartigue said the new measure’s overarching themes are to bring young children between 10 and 12 years of age into the juvenile court system, rather than respond with social services. She also criticized the bill for removing discretion in diverting children from arrest and prosecution and increasing reliance on probation and detention.
“Ultimately, the impact of these proposals will be to incarcerate more children, specifically Black and brown children who statistically are catapulted into the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems more than other children,” Dartigue said in a statement.