Juvenile Justice Reform

submitted by Kathy Larrabee

Juvenile justice systems seek to balance the task of salvaging young offenders from a life of crime and incarceration while also protecting the public. Juvenile justice in Maryland can be traced back hundreds of years.

Stakeholders and lawmakers dedicated to juvenile justice reform (JJR) generally have chosen to address the issues with new laws, while administration officials prefer tweaking the existing system to let it work as initially intended. These philosophical differences were most evident in 2022 legislative session. For the most part, the 2022 bills were based on the recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council authorized by the General Assembly in 2019. 

Several 2022 reforms will make sweeping changes, including: raising the minimum age of juvenile court to 13, except for children ages 10 to 12 alleged to have committed the most serious violent offenses; allowing the Department of Juvenile Services greater discretion in areas of diversion and adjustments, and limiting terms of probation imposed by a juvenile court. Importantly, a permanent Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices will be established, and the Child Interrogation Protection Act will give more rights to children and families.

How effectively the new laws will be implemented is the next big step. Supporters of JJR have declared Maryland’s juvenile court system to be among the worst in the country. In Maryland, more than 30 legal charges would make juveniles automatically eligible for transfer from juvenile court to adult court—an estimated 200 cases per year. These crimes range from murder to handgun possession. According to state data, from 2013 to 2020, about 7,800 juveniles were automatically charged as adults in Maryland, and about 80 percent of them were Black. Specifically, Black juveniles under age 13 will benefit most under new JJR reforms given they are disproportionately and disparately impacted by Department of Juvenile Services intakes, dispositions, and placements. Ironically, within 2 months of the new JJR law on minimum age of jurisdiction, a 9-year-old Black boy, from the porch of his home, shot and killed a teen neighbor on the porch of her home in the Baltimore City suburbs. 

The League of Women Voters of Maryland (LWVMD) began studying correctional institutions and parole and probation procedures in the mid- 80’s after realizing little progress had occurred since its broader, initial studies in the early 70s which included a juvenile corrections study that evaluated the juvenile court system and lead to new policy positions. 

Specifically, the LWVMD supports:

Use of specialized judges, counseling services and administration of juvenile cases, all geared to dealing with families, and (1) small, regional juvenile institutions; (2) Individually designed training and treatment programs and local or regional diagnostic services for juvenile offenders; (3) Coordination of programs and services for juvenile offenders provided by the state agencies; and (4) 24-hour supervised residential work and restitution centers with treatment programs available.

Additionally, the League advocates against systemic racism in the justice system and, at a minimum, for preventing excessive force and brutality by law enforcement. LWVMD calls upon every level of government to eradicate systemic racism and the harm it causes.