Juvenile Justice Reform

Submitted by: Ralph Watkins

Juvenile justice systems seek to balance the task of salvaging young offenders from a life of crime and incarceration while also protecting the public. 

A major challenge to crafting effective policies is the public perception of levels of crime.  According to data collected by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, overall juvenile complaints have decreased by 50% from 2014, but several categories of violent offenses have increased. With recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings loosening restrictions on gun possession, it is not surprising that handgun violations have increased by 220%.  Carjacking, often committed with firearms, has increased by 85.4%, and auto thefts have more than doubled. Criminal justice policies are not the only factor affecting crime rates. In a report to a General Assembly hearing in September 2023, the Department of Juvenile Services noted that part of the increase in auto theft was encouraged by the “Kia Challenge,” a TikTok video that showed how to steal certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars, with some versions of that video having more than 40 million views.

Maryland laws make it much easier to charge juveniles as adults than in many other states. 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. 

Although it is crucial to have good laws in place for juvenile justice, it is also essential to provide support services that can intervene effectively with youth at an early stage and steer them away from involvement in crime.  At the September 2023 hearing, the Department of Juvenile Services and the Office of the Public Defender noted that critically needed resources are lacking; Maryland does not have a residential drug treatment program for adolescents, and other support services for juveniles and their families are underfunded.  There are also significant variations in the services available in urban areas versus rural areas.

Over the past year, prosecutors and law enforcement officers have argued that changes made by the legislature in 2022 are contributing to these increases and preventing prosecutions.  The 2022 reforms included raising the minimum age of juvenile court to 13 (except for children ages 10 to 12 alleged to have committed the most severe 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.  We anticipate multiple efforts to “fine-tune” the 2022 reforms in this session of the General Assembly.  Monitoring those bills will be a high priority to ensure that any changes genuinely improve upon rather than merely roll back the earlier reforms.

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:

The 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.


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