Efforts to reform Maryland’s juvenile justice system and stop the proliferation of “ghost guns” that can be assembled at home will be a main focus of criminal law legislation in the coming Maryland General Assembly session.
Other bills expected to be introduced this term would prevent youngsters from automatically being charged as adults even when they are alleged to have committed very violent crimes; require criminally charged juveniles under age 13 to be sent to social services rather than to juvenile court; and ensure juveniles have the right to counsel during police interrogation.
Meanwhile, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh – who shepherded Maryland’s ban on assault-style weapons as a state senator – will spearhead legislation intended to stop the proliferation of privately made firearms, more commonly known as ghost guns, in his final 90-day legislative session as an elected official. The proposed measure would essentially prohibit the possession of unserialized – and thus untraceable – firearms.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. “Will” Smith, whose panel will hold hearings and any preliminary votes on the legislation, called juvenile justice reform and ghost-gun control essential to Maryland’s well-being.
The juvenile justice system must “ensure that those under the age of 18 … receive a full-throated evaluation” before trial, said Smith, D-Montgomery.
Ghost guns are “quite scary,” he added. “You can assemble a firearm with relative ease and little expertise.”
Sen. Jill P. Carter, who plans to sponsor a raft of reform bills, said disapprovingly that the juvenile justice system is the only area of Maryland law where youngsters are treated as adults.
“We recognize them as children in every other situation,” said Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, citing laws setting minimum ages for purchasing alcohol and voting.
Carter called the practice of treating youngsters as adults particularly pernicious in those instances when children are automatically prosecuted as adults based solely on the severity of their crimes without requiring prosecutors to show why the juvenile justice system is inadequate to handle the matter.
These severe crimes include murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery, carjacking and gun possession.
With these offenses, “the child has to prove they’re a child rather than the state having to prove it’s not a child,” Carter said.
Carter said she is also concerned by the lack of a “children’s Gideon,” a statutory right for youngsters to be represented by counsel when questioned by police in much the same way that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel at trial.
“It’s outrageous that we don’t have it,” Carter said of her proposed “Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act.”
The proposal would require police to attempt to notify a child’s parent or guardian prior to interrogation and prohibit questioning until the child has consulted with a private attorney or public defender.
Police interrogations can be particularly “coercive” for children, who are susceptible to the power of suggestion and have a tendency to agree with leading questions, said Carter, a member of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“Children don’t understand what is being done,” she added.
The ACLU of Maryland said in a statement the legislation would provide children the “basic due process” right to legal representation at interrogation.
“This matters because children are unable to fully understand the gravity of situations, because they lack the social and emotional maturity of adults,” the American Civil Liberties chapter added. “They are far more likely to admit guilt, even when they are innocent.”
Other juvenile justice measures would call for administrative diversion of certain offenses from the juvenile justice system to social services, where misbehaving children can be assigned community service or be required to issue an apology rather than face the possibility of jail. In addition, a bill would prohibit juveniles from being sentenced to jail for having committed a nonviolent misdemeanor or a technical violation of probation.
Retired Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gary E. Bair, a juvenile justice reform advocate, said he plans to testify this session in favor of diversion to social services.
“Such pre-court diversion reduces recidivism by keeping low risk youth away from the stigma of being labeled as a delinquent,” Bair wrote in a blog for the Rockville law firm RaquinMercer LLC, where he serves as of counsel.
“Currently, diversion opportunities do exist, but DJS (the state Department of Juvenile Services) has reported disturbing racial disparities in the use of diversion,” Bair added. “Amendments to the law would make it easier to divert more cases and hopefully reduce the racial disparities as well.”
Frosh will spend his 36th – and final – legislative session as either a legislator or attorney general lobbying for a measure regulating ghost guns, unserialized fireams that are assembled from kits that can be bought online.
The legislation marks Frosh’s first major foray into gun control legislation since 2013 when he, as Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee chair, led the fight for enactment of the Maryland Firearm Safety Act and its ban on 45 assault-style weapons.
Ghost guns, though lacking the firepower of AR-15s and their ilk, are “impossible to trace” because they arrive unassembled and with no serial number to track where they were made and perhaps from where they were bought, Frosh said.
“They are used more and more frequently in crimes of violence,” added Frosh, who is not running for re-election as attorney general this year. “This should be a place where everyone agrees.”
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy praised Frosh’s legislative proposal but said he would prefer an outright ban on ghost guns akin to the prohibition on assault-style weapons because of their ease of manufacture and lack of traceability.
“If we do not pass intelligent laws on ghost guns, we might as well throw out the gun (control) legislation we have passed in the past 25 years in America,” McCarthy said.
“They have been in my schoolyards, they have been in my parks and they have been in my homicides,” McCarthy said. “I am now convinced that the only way to control them is to ban them.”
But Mark W. Pennak, president of the gun rights group Maryland Shall Issue Inc., said the legislation would punish law-abiding citizens and hobbyists who manufacture guns for lawful uses while not reaching hardened criminals who do not heed firearm restrictions.
“This will do absolutely nothing to provide a deterrent,” Pennak said.
“Banning them in Maryland will simply criminalize the innocent,” he added. “This is a feel-good solution that is not a solution.”
However, Del. David Moon, vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said the danger posed by ghost guns is “obviously something we need to get a handle on.”
“The requirement for a serial number is an eminently reasonable precaution to have,” added Moon, D- Montgomery.