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Opinion: Maryland Needs to Keep Up the Momentum on Juvenile Justice Reforms

Juvenile Justice photo.

By Maya Szilak

The writer is a resident fellow on the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties team at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy think tank.

The Maryland General Assembly is holding hearings on juvenile justice bills that would reduce youth recidivism, enhance public safety and stop the needless waste of court resources. Specifically, raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 13 years old in most cases and ending the automatic charging of kids as young as 14 as adults. Both conservative and liberal legislators should support these reforms.

Maryland’s current system of funneling very young children into the juvenile courts for minor offenses, and automatically charging youth as adults based solely on category of offense, is arbitrary, wasteful and sets youth up to fail.

Under existing Maryland law, children at any age can be charged in juvenile court, and, on reaching age 7, are presumed to understand the nature and consequences of their acts to be held fully criminally responsible.

These laws are an embarrassment.

Even if legislators have evidence that grade-schoolers are masterminding serious crimes across Maryland, they should support raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. This reform would sensibly divert youth younger than 13 to community treatment services in lieu of juvenile court — with the prudent exception that, beginning at age 10, youth charged with very serious crimes can still be sent to the juvenile justice system. From there, such youths can still be sent to the adult system should the severity of the crime warrant it.

As any parent, teacher, child care worker or other adult who has dealt with preteens knows, kids this age have limited cognitive capacity and concept of consequences. Research backs this up, showing that most kids younger than 13 do not understand juvenile court proceedings. Studies also show that diverting preteens to community treatment is more effective in reducing recidivism and is less costly than juvenile court. Sending preteens to juvenile court is also an extravagant waste of time and resources.

To illustrate, in 2019, 90% of preteen delinquency cases were dismissed or withdrawn.

By the same token, Maryland’s system of automatically treating kids as young as 14 as adults, based solely on the offense charged, is wasteful and counterproductive.

Youth who commit violent crimes and show little chance of rehabilitation arguably should be considered for adult prosecution. However, very few juveniles fall into this category. Roughly 80% of youth automatically sent to adult criminal court end up being transferred back to the juvenile court because adult criminal proceedings are found inappropriate. Generally, they will have their cases dismissed, are found not guilty or are sentenced to time already served and released. In short, most of the youth automatically sent to adult court under current Maryland laws have no business being there in the first place.

Starting all youth cases in juvenile court would save time and resources, otherwise wasted on pointless transfer hearings at which most youth charged as adults are sent back to juvenile court anyway. Under the new law, prosecutors still could seek to transfer those who commit serious crimes to the adult criminal courts. However, the decision of whether to prosecute a youth as an adult would be treated with requisite gravity and deliberation, using individual circumstances to elevate certain cases to the adult criminal system instead of defaulting to it.

Given that youth prosecuted as adults have higher rates of recidivism and are more likely to commit violent crimes later in life compared to those kept in the juvenile system, it makes sense that prosecutors be required to show that a youth poses a serious risk of harm to the public and has little promise of rehabilitation before forcing them into the adult criminal system.

Kids deserve the chance to make amends and learn from past mistakes without government overreach that indiscriminately, automatically brands them as delinquents or incorrigible criminals.

If Maryland legislators want to make communities safer and give kids a fair chance to mature into productive, responsible adults, they can start by supporting the new legislation that will help to achieve these goals.


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Opinion: Maryland Needs to Keep Up the Momentum on Juvenile Justice Reforms