Maryland House approves measure focused on rehabilitation, accountability in juvenile justice system

BALTIMORE – Legislation aimed at addressing youth crime is within view of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s desk.

The Maryland House approved on Friday a measure focused on rehabilitation and accountability in the juvenile justice system. 

The House, which is controlled by Democrats, voted 126-6 for the measure, with six Democrats opposing it. The Senate is moving forward with a largely similar bill, with some differences that the two chambers will need to work out.

Lawmakers announced the legislation a month ago as an answer to an increase in youth crime, particularly auto theft and firearms offenses. 

The measure extends probation for juveniles in certain cases and allows the Department of Juvenile Services to pursue charges against 10, 11 and 12-year-olds for offenses involving guns, weapons, sexual assault or animal abuse.

“There has been a lot of communication and collaboration throughout this process and I think we’re in a very good place,” Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson said. “Even though there are minor differences between the bills, I feel very confident that we’ll get this done in short order.”

The Juvenile Law Reform Bill is supposed to hold juveniles and the system accountable by expanding probation for youth and oversight and data collection in the justice system. 

The proposal also requires law enforcement to maintain records for every juvenile they arrest.

“I think there are balanced measures that have been done in consultation with the state’s attorneys, the public defenders and DJS,” said Senator William Smith J. “Not everyone agrees on every aspect of the bill, but we think we struck that balance.”

Both House and senate versions of the bill expand the jurisdiction of DJS children under 13 for crimes involving firearms, weapons, sexual assault and animal abuse. They differ when it comes to handling auto theft cases for 10 to 12-year-olds.

The measure approved by the House would direct them into a diversionary program for a first offense, instead of oversight by juvenile services, in hopes of changing their behavior without putting them into the juvenile justice system.

For auto thefts, the Senate version would use the Child in Need of Supervision process, which involves the courts but children would not go to a detention center.

“Folks are going to have the supports and the services that they need to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and it’s not a carceral solution,” Smith said.

Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue opposes the legislation, saying in a statement that “broadening the range of offenses that apply to children reinforces the dangerous practice of over-policing.”

Whereas Smith, Chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, says it strikes the right balance.

“What we’ve tried to do as a committee and as a body is to strike that balance between ensuring that the entire system is held accountable, but that folks are not enmeshed in the criminal justice system such that they can’t be productive members of society once they have an interaction,” Smith said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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