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Justice

General Assembly Considering Changes to Maryland’s Juvenile Justice System

The Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Jabriera Handy told lawmakers that she was coerced into confessing to second-degree murder when she was a teenager so that her case would be heard in juvenile court.

Her grandmother suffered a heart attack and died during an argument with Handy. She was charged with second-degree murder and first- and second-degree assault and was automatically placed into the adult criminal court system.

She was a junior in high school.

“During that time, as a 16-year-old child, I had not thought that an argument could have caused the death or caused harm to anyone besides, you know, when you say, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” she told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a briefing Thursday.

Handy spent 11 months in an adult jail. She recalled for the committee humiliating experiences: Her first interaction with an incarcerated adult was in the shower — she said the woman was on drugs. In another instance, Handy, naked, was made to squat and cough in front of guards and other incarcerated people while menstruating.

After two failed waiver hearings, her case was finally passed down to juvenile court only after she confessed that she was responsible for her grandmother’s death. Handy was then sent to a juvenile facility where she received therapeutic services.

Her experience in the criminal justice system isn’t unique, but two bills introduced by Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) and heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee this week could change what proceedings look like for minors in the future:

  • The Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, or Senate Bill 53, would require that police officers contact a child’s legal guardian and allow them to consult with an attorney before being interrogated; And
  • Senate Bill 165 would mandate that defendants under 18 — regardless of their alleged offense — enter the criminal justice system through the juvenile courts.

Hearings on the House cross-files of the bills — House Bill 269 and House Bill 294 — are scheduled for next week and the following week, respectively.

Under current law, there are more than two dozen offenses that can land minors in the adult court system, including rape, murder, carjacking and firearms offenses.

Right now, those cases can be waived down to juvenile court, but the burden is on a minor’s defense attorney to prove why adult criminal court is not the right setting.

And there are racial patterns in which cases get waived down to the juvenile system, where rehabilitation is the focus, rather than punishment.

According to Jenny Egan, a juvenile public defender in Baltimore, 94% of white children’s cases are transferred from criminal to juvenile court compared to 22% of Black children.

“We know that Black youth are arrested at higher rates, charged at higher rates and incarcerated at higher rates [and] sentenced more punitively than white youth even though white youth self-report offending at a higher rate,” she said.

The proposed legislation does not preclude minors facing charges for violent crimes from being tried in criminal court but would shift the burden to the state to prove why the case should be waived up, leaving the decision in the hands of a juvenile court judge.

The bill is based on a recommendation of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, which was formed in 2019 to study inequities and deficiencies in the juvenile court system.

The council’s remaining recommendations will be presented before the General Assembly as an omnibus bill this session.

According to Sam Abed, the secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, charges pressed against minors for violent and other crimes have been on the decline in the past decade, consistent with national trends.

According to Egan, in 1995, 25% of homicides were committed by minors.

“Last year, it was less than 5% — statewide — of homicides being committed by young people — by children,” she said.

Committee Republicans found this hard to believe, pointing to the slight uptick in homicides in Baltimore which has seen more than 300 murders annually since 2015.

Sen. Robert G. Cassilly (R-Harford) pushed back against Abed, saying that less charges are being pursued against minors by the police and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby (D).

“Would it be reasonable to expect that juveniles are behaving more saintly than the rest of the population when it comes to crime?” Cassilly asked. “What you’re saying is, people over 18 are on a murder spree that has Baltimore at record murder rates and people under 18 have become angelic for some unknown reason over the last eight years.”

Abed responded that the reduction in complaints against young people has been “impressive.”

“I think there’s a marked change in the behavior of kids, absolutely,” he replied.