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Juvenile justice reform bill proposes tweaks to the system

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) speaks at a press conference Jan. 31, 2024, where he joined Democratic leaders to announce juvenile justice reforms. Photo by Danielle J. Brown.

Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly have unveiled proposals aimed at tweaking the state’s juvenile justice system to combine accountability and rehabilitation.

Although the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), led by Secretary Vincent Schiraldi, noted that complaints about and rearrests of young people under 13 have declined, juvenile justice reform has remained a hot topic in Maryland due to high-profile shootings and crimes last year.

In July a mass shooting at the Brooklyn Homes community in Baltimore killed two people and injured more than two dozen. In November, Baltimore police arrested two juveniles, ages 12 and 14, who assaulted, robbed and tried to steal a woman’s car. After their arrest, police returned them to their homes.

Some law enforcement officials, state’s attorneys, residents and lawmakers have requested changes to two measures which were signed into law in 2022: Juvenile Justice Reform and the Child Interrogation Protection Act.

But the Democratic leaders’ proposals, Senate Bill 744 and House Bill 814, posted online Wednesday night, make no changes to those laws. Instead, the bills propose for the department, law enforcement officials and local state’s attorneys to work in partnership to combat juvenile crime.

A spokesperson with the Department of Juvenile Services said the agency is willing to work with lawmakers to tweak the system.

“Secretary Schiraldi is leading the charge to help rehabilitate young people and instill accountability—both for our youth and the system stakeholders who serve them — all while engaging in systemic fixes to address what’s long been broken at DJS,” department spokesperson Eric Solomon said in a statement Thursday. “It’s the right thing to do, and it makes us safer. DJS looks forward to working with the legislature and other key stakeholders as we all strive for improved public safety and the best outcomes for our young people, families, and communities.”

The bills, led by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), would require a law enforcement officer to file a complaint with the department if a child younger than 13 years old commits a crime “that results in the death of a victim.”

Before the start of this year’s legislative session, Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore) filed Senate Bill 2, which would require an officer to file a complaint and also makes it mandatory for an intake officer with the department to file a Children in Need of Supervision petition.

The petition, also known as a CINS, enables law enforcement personnel, social service representatives, educators and residents to fill out a form so a troubled youth and the youth’s family can receive a variety of services.

But currently, officers don’t fill out the forms because they see no remedy when a young person continues to commit certain crimes, the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police President Clyde Boatwright told a House Judiciary Committee in the fall.

The leaders’ bills would allow a juvenile court to extend a child’s probation on misdemeanor offenses from the current six-month maximum to as much as a year. After that a judge could extend the probationary period by four-month increments for up to two years.

For offenses categorized as a felony, a judge could extend the probationary period from the current one-year maximum to two years. But if a judge determines more probation time is needed, then it could be extended up to four years.

“Right now, juvenile offenders and the services and accountability they need are separated by an abundance of confusion,” Jones posted on her X (formerly Twitter) page Wednesday. “Our legislation will bridge this gap and ensue that we do a better job of connecting children with the services they need to be rehabilitated.”

The leaders’ bills would also require a Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices — which was authorized by the General Assembly in June 2022 but as yet has only three members and eight vacancies — to complete several tasks including:

  • Review the department’s educational and diversionary programs and other services.
  • Research culturally competent, evidence-based and research-based programs and practices relating to child welfare, juvenile rehabilitation and mental health services for children.
  • Examine and review fatalities involving children under the supervision of DJS.
  • Identify opportunities for greater coordination between the department, state’s attorneys, law enforcement agencies and local organizations that provide services to youth.

Their bills would more than double the number of members to be seated on the commission. They also would require specific members, including a representative of the state chiefs of police association or the sheriffs association, a representative with the state Department of Health and a representative of a private child welfare agency.

The House bill is scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 8 in the Judiciary Committee. The Senate bill is scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 9 in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Several criminal justice reform advocates said the measures are counterproductive to what was passed in 2022, especially the proposal to allow DJS to send to juvenile court children as young as 10 who have been arrested for serious offenses, such as those involving a firearm, motor vehicle theft and animal abuse.

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,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a statement. “The 2022 reforms recognized the need to shift from punitive centered approaches. A return to outdated ‘tough on crime’ measures will not make communities safer…”

Study effectiveness

Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) is sponsoring a bill similar to the Democratic leaders’ bills, but his Senate Bill 636 would also assess the costs of the department’s programs over the last five fiscal years.

West’s bill calls for a commission to be formed to study the department’s ability to “provide effective social services to juvenile offenders.”

The governor would designate the chair of at least seven members on the commission, including representatives from the department, Office of the Attorney General, Office of the Public Defender and a legislator appointed by the chairs of the Senate Judicial Proceedings and House Judiciary committees.

Similar to the Democrats’ bills, West’s would have the commission review department policies and practices.

A hearing on West’s bill is scheduled for Feb. 22 before the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“The secretary of DJS does not have enough resources to provide services to the kids,” West said Thursday. “As a result, it’s like a recycling program. The kid gets arrested, he gets sent back home again. He commits another crime, gets rearrested, sent back home, and there are no services rendered. That doesn’t work.”

Another DJS-focused bill that the Senate committee may discuss on Feb. 22 is sponsored by Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City). Senate Bill 652 would require the department to report all shootings that involved juveniles under its supervision.

It would require DJS to document whether juveniles were involved in fatal and non-fatal shootings, the age of each individual and the jurisdiction where the juvenile resided. The DJS report would be required to describe the process and actions conducted by the department after each incident.

McCray said he receives similar information and data from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and from law enforcement personnel in his district.

“We don’t get that from DJS right now,” he said. “It’s not a [got-you] moment. I just think this is good, public policy…so that people understand what is happening when folks are under their purview, involved in a shooting or a non-fatal shooting.”

Reporter Danielle J. Brown contributed to this report.


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Juvenile justice reform bill proposes tweaks to the system