Opinion: Why Md. Lawmakers Should Enact Meaningful Youth Justice Reforms This Session

Youth Justice
Screenshot of Montgomery County Police Department body-worn camera footage from a January 2020 officers' interaction with a 5-year-old student.

The Montgomery County Police Department recently released shocking body-camera footage of two officers berating and handcuffing a 5-year-old elementary school child. The video shows officers shouting at him inches away from his face that he was a “little beast” and saying, “I hope your momma lets me beat you.” The child’s mother has filed a lawsuit and both officers are under investigation.

If a panel of Maryland juvenile justice experts have their way, appalling cases like this will soon become a thing of the past.

In 2019, the Maryland legislature and governor established the Juvenile Justice Reform Council to use research and best practices to develop “strategies to increase public safety and reduce recidivism of youth offenders.” The JJRC consisted of bipartisan elected officials and a diverse collection of judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, law enforcement and corrections officials, researchers, service providers, youth and advocates.

In January, the JJRC issued its near-unanimous recommendations to divert younger youth and youth accused of less serious offenses out of the system. Now is the time for Maryland’s General Assembly to enact these important reforms.

As people who have run youth corrections, we can attest to the fact that they should be reserved for youth who truly need them, while younger children and those accused of less serious offenses should be diverted into treatment or other less punitive alternatives.

In this year of racial reckoning, it is especially important to reform Maryland’s youth justice system.

Three-quarters of the youth in custody in Maryland are Black and nearly two-thirds of Maryland youth younger than 13 who are arrested are Black. This despite the fact that Black youth only make up 35% of Maryland’s youth population. Latinx youth were the least likely of any group to have their cases resolved informally for low-level offenses.

The JJRC’s final report, which has been codified into Senate Bill 853, recommends raising the age of juvenile court so that youth under 13 would no longer be arrested and prosecuted unless accused of very serious offenses. It would increase diversion for less serious offenses and limit probation terms. And it would prohibit youth convicted of less serious offenses or non-criminal probation violations from being incarcerated.

At House hearings on the legislation, no one spoke in opposition, which passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote. The legislation then passed the Maryland House of Delegates by a 95-41 margin.

Despite this widespread support, the bill has sat in the Senate Judiciary Committee for a month with no action. Recently, it was quietly removed from the list of bills the committee is voting on, with only days remaining in the legislative calendar.

These reforms are vital to enact now. While this may sound crazy to most parents, Maryland currently has no minimum age for arresting and prosecuting children, lagging behind states such as California and Massachusetts. This despite research and experience showing that such children are immature, have poorer reasoning, and have less ability to understand their legal proceedings. In 2020, Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services received 1,479 complaints for children under age 13. Ninety-four percent of those very young children have their cases diverted or dismissed altogether. All youth under 13 who were committed to DJS had only committed a misdemeanor.

The bill would also limit incarcerating children in youth prisons for low-level misdemeanor offenses and technical, non-criminal probation violations. There is extensive research showing that, when youth are placed in what is known as “congregate care facilities” in custody with many others with similar challenges, their behavior worsens, they have poor educational and mental health outcomes, and they are often subject to abuse. Evidence also shows that youth served in natural community settings experience far better outcomes. In Maryland, two-thirds of the youth in such facilities are there for less serious, non-felony offenses. Such placements are costly to the taxpayers and can be harmful for any youth; they are especially indefensible for youth accused of less serious offenses.

Trust us on this one. As experienced youth correctional leaders, we can attest to the fact that the youth justice system is no place for young children and kids referred for minor offenses. They will only pick up worse behaviors, begin to self-identify as criminals, and further disconnect from the loving, caring relationships they need, exactly the opposite of what we all want for them.

They, and all the rest of us, would be much better off if they were referred to community programs where they can access services and supports more tailored to their developmental needs. Maryland’s House has done its part, now it is time for the Senate to finish the job on behalf of Maryland’s young people.

–CLINTON LACEY AND VINCENT SCHIRALDI

The writers are, respectively, president and CEO of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement and former director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services; and co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, former director of DYRS and former commissioner of New York City Probation.