Maryland Enacts Sweeping Youth Justice Reforms

Posted June 21, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Two Black students are standing outside, wearing bookbags.

Mary­land law­mak­ers have passed a series of wide-rang­ing reforms that aim to posi­tion young peo­ple with jus­tice-sys­tem involve­ment for long-term success.

The reforms, which start­ed to take hold on June 1, 2022, include:

  • Rais­ing the min­i­mum age of juve­nile court juris­dic­tion to 13, except for chil­dren ages 10 to 12 alleged to have com­mit­ted the most seri­ous vio­lent offenses.
  • Pro­hibit­ing the use of secure deten­tion or com­mit­ment to the Depart­ment of Juve­nile Ser­vices for tech­ni­cal vio­la­tions of pro­ba­tion and mis­de­meanor offens­es (apart from hand­gun vio­la­tions and repeat­ed mis­de­meanor offenses).
  • Remov­ing bar­ri­ers to diver­sion, includ­ing allow­ing youth with non­vi­o­lent felonies to be divert­ed with­out pros­e­cu­tor approval. This change rec­og­nizes research that indi­cates most young peo­ple who break the law can be held account­able by their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties and be con­nect­ed to effec­tive resources — such as coun­selors, men­tors and ath­let­ic coach­es — who can help them learn from their mistakes.
  • Plac­ing devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate time lim­its on pro­ba­tion to ensure bet­ter out­comes for youth.

Jus­tice Reforms Rec­om­mend­ed by an Expert Panel

The mea­sures in the juve­nile jus­tice reform law are con­sis­tent with poli­cies pro­posed by the state’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Reform Coun­cil, which the leg­is­la­ture estab­lished in 2019. Mem­bers of the coun­cil includ­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the state Sen­ate and House of Del­e­gates, gov­ern­ment agency lead­ers, a pros­e­cu­tor, pub­lic defend­er, juve­nile court judge, advo­cates and researchers. This group explored how to set young peo­ple up for long-term suc­cess when they came into con­flict with the law while also reduc­ing recidi­vism and increas­ing pub­lic safety.

This leg­is­la­tion pro­tects both pub­lic safe­ty and the sanc­ti­ty of child­hood,” says Sam Abed, sec­re­tary of Maryland’s Depart­ment of Juve­nile Ser­vices. It kicks off reforms that, accord­ing to Abed, address some of the long­stand­ing chal­lenges that have plagued our sys­tem for decades — name­ly over-reliance on incar­cer­a­tion, sig­nif­i­cant racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties and not hav­ing a statu­to­ry min­i­mum age of jurisdiction.”

These new rules are root­ed in research and best prac­tices,” adds Nate Balis, who served on the reform coun­cil and directs the Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. The leg­is­la­ture deserves a lot of cred­it for estab­lish­ing poli­cies that not only reduce the use of harm­ful con­fine­ment, but also empha­size the need to bet­ter sup­port young peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty out­side of the for­mal system.”

The New Mary­land Juve­nile Jus­tice Laws

The new reforms will help reduce the num­ber of young peo­ple sub­ject­ed to juve­nile court and improve the expe­ri­ences of young peo­ple who con­tin­ue to be pros­e­cut­ed. Pri­or to these changes, Mary­land had no set min­i­mum age for pros­e­cut­ing young peo­ple. In 2020, for exam­ple, the state pros­e­cut­ed 376 chil­dren under the age of 13 — and more than 70% these chil­dren were Black. The year also saw over 1,000 addi­tion­al arrests of chil­dren under the age of 13 who were not pros­e­cut­ed. Under the new law, 90% of these cas­es would have spared the chil­dren involved from being arrested.

For youth 13 and old­er, the new law pro­vides the state’s juve­nile jus­tice agency greater dis­cre­tion in choos­ing diver­sion — a change that aligns with data indi­cat­ing that youth who par­tic­i­pate in diver­sion pro­grams are less like­ly to reof­fend than their peers who are not divert­ed. For exam­ple: Depart­ment of Juve­nile Ser­vices staff will no longer need the local state’s attor­ney approval to divert youth charged with non-vio­lent felonies, such as break­ing and enter­ing. The new law also estab­lish­es a path­way for the court to return a case to the Depart­ment of Juve­nile Ser­vices intake for assess­ment and ser­vices rather than prosecution.

For young peo­ple adju­di­cat­ed and placed on pro­ba­tion, the new reforms restrict the length of pro­ba­tion sen­tences based on offense, with max­i­mum ini­tial terms of six months for mis­de­meanors and 12 months for felonies. The court can extend pro­ba­tion sen­tences in three-month incre­ments — up to a year total for mis­de­meanor offens­es, two years for felony offens­es and until a youth turns 21 for crimes of violence.

The law also pro­hibits the use of con­fine­ment — both in deten­tion and incar­cer­a­tion — for vio­la­tions of pro­ba­tion and mis­de­meanors oth­er than firearm offens­es. This impact of this shift is sig­nif­i­cant: In 2021, more than 40% of youth were removed from their homes for mis­de­meanor offens­es like shoplift­ing, sim­ple assault or dis­turb­ing pub­lic order.

Pro­tect­ing Young Peo­ple Before Interrogation 

The evo­lu­tion of Mary­land’s juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem isn’t over just yet. Youth are par­tic­u­lar­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to giv­ing false con­fes­sions when they are inter­ro­gat­ed by law enforce­ment, accord­ing to James Dold, chief exec­u­tive offi­cer of Human Rights for Kids. Thank­ful­ly, on Octo­ber 1, 2022, the state is poised to enact laws that will reduce the like­li­hood of young peo­ple being inter­ro­gat­ed by law enforce­ment with­out their par­ents, guardians or attor­ney present.

This change will require law enforce­ment offi­cials to make good-faith efforts to noti­fy a child’s par­ents or legal guardians before inter­ro­gat­ing them. The notice must include the child’s loca­tion, why the child was tak­en into cus­tody and how the guardian could make imme­di­ate, in-per­son con­tact with the child. Oth­er aspects of the leg­is­la­tion require a child to con­sult with an attor­ney pri­or to being inter­ro­gat­ed and encour­age Mary­land courts to adopt age-appro­pri­ate lan­guage so that the chil­dren involved can bet­ter under­stand their options and rights.

Con­sid­ered togeth­er, these changes form a mon­u­men­tal step in the right direc­tion for kids and fam­i­lies across the state. The leg­is­la­tion passed this year in Mary­land is the best in the nation when it comes to pro­tect­ing the due process rights of chil­dren at the point of arrest as well as estab­lish­ing a min­i­mum age for delin­quen­cy that is in line with inter­na­tion­al human rights norms,” says Dold. 

Supreme Court Deci­sion Affirms Jus­tice Sys­tems Must Treat Youth Differently

Pros­e­cu­tion of Young Peo­ple as Adults Defies the Spir­it of the Supreme Court Ruling

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