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Commentary Justice

Commentary: Wisdom and evidence should dictate youth justice policy

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By Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Bishop J.L. Carter, Imam Earl El-Amin, and Rev. Marlon Tilghman

The writers are clergy in the Baltimore area: Daniel Cotzin Burg is senior rabbi at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore. Bishop Carter leads the ARK Church in Baltimore. Earl El-Amin is resident Imam of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore. Marlon Tilghman is pastor of Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air. 

As members of the faith community, we appreciate that the General Assembly is taking the concerns of the community regarding public safety and the reduction of crime seriously. We understand the fears that have been amplified in the media and at conversations around dinner tables. Yet, we also believe that most of the new juvenile justice legislation (House Bill 814/Senate Bill 744), as it is currently written, will do more harm than good.

In a Jan. 31 press conference announcing the new legislation, Senate President Bill Ferguson said that, “While youth offenders account for less than 10% of the crimes committed, unfortunately, it is clear that they become the largest part of the crime perception challenge in Maryland.” We are concerned that this legislation responds more to the perception of youth crime than to empirical evidence about what is in the best interests of our communities and our children.

This was evident at the recent committee hearings on the bills. Because the new legislation allows children ages 10 to 12 to be arrested for nonviolent crimes, House and Senate lawmakers frequently requested data concerning crimes by 10, 11, and 12-year-old children. Bill sponsors could not produce any related data, which begs the question: Are these bills driven by fear and frustration or by evidence?

We do know, based on all available evidence, that children who enter the criminal justice system are more likely to become repeat offenders. So, while the stated goal of juvenile detention is rehabilitation, steering kids away from diversionary programs increases the likelihood they will become incarcerated adults — a punitive result.

Our sacred texts teach us that when fear is not balanced with empathy and reliable information, we lose sight of the most sacred guide in making righteous decisions: wisdom. And it’s wisdom that ultimately allows human beings, created in God’s image, to heal and grow. Let’s not put the cart before the horse and pass legislation that is based on fear or frustration. Instead, let policy guided by wisdom lead to the best accountability by and care for our children.

We urge our elected leaders to listen to community feedback and pursue proven solutions that don’t punish kids for system failures. Our children are sacred. The burden of their poor decisions must be balanced against the possibilities for their future. We adults can do better by talking less and listening more — to them and to experts who know best what they need.


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Commentary: Wisdom and evidence should dictate youth justice policy