Lawmakers work toward solution on juvenile justice



ANNAPOLIS (March 6, 2024)—Lawmakers are moving toward consensus on changes to Maryland's juvenile justice system, discussing how to address crime by children ages 10 to 12 and get them into rehabilitation programs that can help.

The House and Senate have each passed their own version in this effort, and lawmakers are now turning to the task of agreeing on a shared solution.

The main point of contention between the two bills now is whether kids who are being shielded from prosecution should go to programs without Department of Juvenile Services involvement or, instead, go into a DJS process that would play out in court.

"I think that what it comes down to is both sides want to find some way prior to the child being put directly into DJS, of having a stop on the way before that happens," said Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, co-sponsor of the House bill.

Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery, co-sponsor in the Senate, said that in discussions to agree on a single bill, lawmakers will "do whatever makes sense to ensure that, obviously, our youth have the supports to succeed and public safety is upheld."

But as the measures advance, they also differ on the crimes that would trigger mandatory rehabilitation.

The House bill would give kids accused of auto theft or firearms violations for the first time a chance to avoid court by participating in a so-called "diversion program" chosen by the arresting officer. Such a program is meant to offer services and divert a child from entering the juvenile justice system.

The Senate bill would send kids accused of auto theft for the first time to court through an existing DJS procedure, known as the "Child in Need of Supervision" process. In current law, when law enforcement or a member of the public reports someone as a Child in Need of Supervision, a DJS intake officer can decide whether to refer the young person to services or file a "CINS petition" in court. A CINS petition asks the judge to assess the case and decide on an appropriate intervention.

The amended Senate bill would require the filing of a petition in court, but only in cases of children under 13 accused of auto theft for the first time.

While a judge could choose from a range of options in such cases—such as community-based services, a substance abuse rehabilitation program or an out-of-home placement—incarceration would not be on the table. And if a child did not complete the rehabilitation, the judge could recall them to court.

Both bills would require police to file a written report with DJS when they refer a young person to services or take them into custody. The CINS petition required in the Senate bill would also create a written record in a child's case history.

Smith said that by requiring an intake officer to send children before a judge, the Senate bill will allow children "to have the ability to get services and support, but there will be a level of accountability there."

Both bills would specify that if a child repeats the same offense a second time, they could be sent to court with the possibility of incarceration.

Clippinger said he's "happy to hear more from the Senate" but that creating a separate CINS process for children ages 10 to 12 accused of auto theft could create confusion.

Some youth advocates are still skeptical.

"Only one diversion for a kid who's 10, 11 or 12 is not going to solve the problem of whether they're competent to stand trial," said Kimber Watts, attorney in the Forensic Mental Health Division at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

When a young person is charged with a crime, they undergo a process to determine whether they are "competent" to understand the court proceedings. During this process, they can only receive services to help them attain competency.

In cases when children are ruled incompetent, Watts said, "then we're high and dry, and we can't get them whatever it is they need."

Both versions of the bill moved through their chambers with largely favorable votes, with support from Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. William Folden, R-Frederick, said that while the Senate bill wasn't "as far-reaching as we would like to have had," it would help hold kids accountable for their rehabilitation.

"That's an important component, being able to have that recall authority of the judge to say that their sentencing and their guidelines have some teeth," Folden said.

Neither bill would change a 2022 law that bars police from interrogating minors before they have consulted with an attorney.

"There are parents that want law enforcement to be in contact with their child and say, 'Listen, you're going down a bad path. Don't do this. This is why,'" said Folden. "That type of candid dialogue is now gone because the officer can't talk (with the young person) even with parental consent."

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