Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery County) have expressed support for ending the practice of automatically charging Maryland youth as adults in criminal court.
Smith plans to take the issue head-on during the 2022 legislative session, which is slated to be busy for his committee, with pending tweaks to police reform legislation passed in 2021, among other legislative priorities popping up.
“Just as every committee has to deal with multiple issues, so too do we, and so we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Smith.
Smith, who sits on the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, published an opinion piece in Maryland Matters last Thursday, saying that the 2022 legislative session is the “time to fix” automatic adult jurisdiction, or the act of charging minors as adults for certain crimes.
A spokesperson for Frosh said his office agrees the practice is outdated, indicating that Hannibal Kemerer, the chief counsel for legislative affairs to the attorney general’s office and Frosh’s representative on the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, will vote with Smith to end it.
“We think the practice of automatically sending juveniles to adult court is harmful,” Aleithea Warmack, a spokesperson from Frosh’s office, said in an email. “We think the process needs to be reformed.”
The Juvenile Justice Reform Council is expected to vote on the matter of automatic adult jurisdiction this month. A report from the panel is due to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and the General Assembly by Oct. 1.
In Maryland, the juvenile court system has jurisdiction over minors charged with crimes. But, because of statutory exclusions, youths age 14 and up are automatically charged as adults for first-degree rape, attempted first-degree rape and conspiracy to commit first-degree rape and first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Teens over 16 are automatically charged as adults for some firearms offenses and other crimes:
- Carjacking and armed carjacking;
- First-degree assault;
- Robbery with a dangerous weapon and attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon;
- Second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder;
- Second-degree rape and attempted second-degree rape;
- Third-degree sex offenses; and
- Voluntary manslaughter.
Once a minor has been convicted as an adult in a Maryland court, they are no longer eligible to have cases heard by a juvenile judge.
Ending automatic adult jurisdiction, also known as “direct file,” wouldn’t stop children from being charged as adults in court, but it would give discretion to juvenile court judges about whether a case should be waived up to criminal court.
Giving the issue a second look
At what was supposed to be the final meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council last December, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) pushed the panel to vote to include a recommendation to end automatic adult jurisdiction in the council’s final report.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger (D) made a motion to defer the vote until the council had “all of the data,” saying that the council didn’t have enough information and that a vote on ending adult automatic jurisdiction “seem[ed] awful rushed all of a sudden.”
During a phone interview, Carter said the push to end automatic adult jurisdiction stems from scientific research which has shown that kids don’t fully comprehend the weight of their actions because their brains are underdeveloped.
She also recognized racial disparities in decisions to charge youth as adults.
According to a presentation to the Juvenile Justice Reform Council by the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, 80% of youths charged as adults between 2013 and 2020 were Black.
Carter said that she has “encountered innumerable amounts of young people who have been mentally” and “spiritually” destroyed because of the mistreatment they’ve experienced while being held in adult jails. Often, she said, these cases are thrown out or waived back down to juvenile court.
“It’s not a progressive thing,” she said. “It’s a right thing but it’s just long overdue, just like police reform was very long overdue.”
As a delegate, Carter successfully co-sponsored a bill in 2013 that created the Task Force of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction which she said, in her mind, “was to look at the issue of direct file, study it and come out with the recommendations to end direct file.”
Carter said that the task force “fell short” of coming up with recommendations, but legislation in the years that followed have slowly begun to chip away at it, including a bill she co-sponsored with former Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore City) in 2015 that requires minors to be held in youth facilities between the time of their arrest and the hearing that determines if their case will be heard in juvenile court.
“That was like a minuscule step in the right direction,” Carter said.
In an interview, Smith said that if Carter puts forth a bill to end automatic adult jurisdiction in 2022, he would support it.
“As chair, though, it is my job to set an agenda and set a direction and that’s exactly what this op-ed is,” he said.
The Juvenile Justice Reform Council voted 12-11 to defer voting to end automatic adult jurisdiction in 2020, but the motion did not pass because it lacked support from the majority of the 29-member panel.
Carter and House Judiciary Chair Luke H. Clippinger (D-Baltimore City), who also sits on the council, sponsored a bill this past session on behalf of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council to extend its work to June 30, 2022.
In his opinion piece, Smith, who was not present to vote at the December 2020 meeting, wrote that the General Assembly was “unable to adequately address the juvenile reform legislation authored by the [Juvenile Justice Reform Council].”
He has since caught flack for tabling the council’s bill during the 2021 legislative session.
Smith called that criticism “uninformed commentary,” and said that the omnibus bill that will come from the council’s recommendations will be one of the first to be taken up in his committee during the 2022 legislative session
“Literally, we had done police reform …, we [got the] governor out of parole, we did the [Juvenile Restoration Act], we did massive things with immigration — all in 90 days,” he said. “…We just didn’t have the time to get all that stuff done.”