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Criminal justice bills in 2023 will address juvenile, drug, immigration laws

Juvenile justice is meant to be “restorative, not punitive,” says Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Having youth start off in the youth system has better short- and long-term outcomes.” (AP File Photo)

November’s election changed the Maryland General Assembly’s composition, but much of the criminal justice reform legislation to be debated this coming session will be very familiar, particularly in the areas of juvenile, drug and immigration law.

Legislators will again seek to prevent children under age 16 from being automatically charged and tried as adults in all cases. Lawmakers are also expected to revisit efforts to prohibit juveniles from being charged with felony-murder.

Juvenile justice is meant to be “restorative, not punitive,” said Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “Having youth start off in the youth system has better short- and long-term outcomes.”

The returning measure on charging juveniles would permit children under age 16 to be automatically charged as adults only for first- and second-degree murder or rape, attempted first- and second-degree murder or rape, voluntary manslaughter or carjacking.

Another bill would bar felony murder charges against juveniles, based on the belief that naïve youngsters often get into situations of which they have no knowledge, understanding or ability to stop, such as a killing by an acquaintance while they are engaged in mischief.

These bills have failed in past years amid passionate debate in legislative committees and on the floor of the Senate and House of Delegates, pitting lawmakers who believe even the most incorrigible youngsters are not hopelessly lost against those who hold that the punishment must fit the crime.

“Anybody reasonable wants to give juveniles some benefit of the doubt for being a juvenile,” said Senate Minority Whip Justin Ready, R-Carroll. “But we’ve gone to the other extreme in this state and until we can get more consistent enforcement and see a lot more progress in making the public safe, I don’t think further changes are a good idea as it relates to serious juvenile crime.”

On the drug front, the General Assembly will again consider a bill to legalize the possession and distribution of heroin paraphernalia, including needles and syringes. The measure, aimed at protecting heroin addicts from potentially deadly unsanitary needles, was successfully vetoed in 2021 by Gov. Larry Hogan, who said the bill would encourage drug use.

Under current law, the penalty for first-offense possession of illegal drug paraphernalia is a fine of up to $500. Each subsequent offense is punishable by up to 2 years in prison and a $2,000 fine.

Del. David Moon, the measure’s chief sponsor, cited the safety issue and said he will reintroduce the bill this session, during which Gov.-elect Wes Moore, a fellow Democrat, will replace Hogan, a Republican.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer to bring this bill back,” said Moon, D-Montgomery and vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee. “We’ve got to get back to putting the public health priority ahead of the punishment priority here.”

But Ready, who opposed the bill in 2021 as protecting those with “a huge stockpile of heroin paraphernalia,” said his views remain unchanged as Maryland continues to fight a stubborn heroin epidemic.

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“You’d have to be high to think this would be a good idea to legalize heroin paraphernalia,” he said.

With regard to immigration, Moon said he will reintroduce a measure to enable convicts to challenge their convictions for up to three years after they discover or should have known their guilty pleas would have collateral consequences, such as deportation.

“It’s not a door we want to close,” Moon said of the opportunity to challenge.

Hogan successfully vetoed that measure in 2018, saying the current law’s standard of starting the clock when the convict knew or should have known that the guilty plea was ill-advised. The bill, by contrast, would have enabled the convict “to do nothing until faced with a collateral consequence,” Hogan said then.

“I am hopeful that with a new governor we will have a fresh look,” Moon said.

Smith, the senator, said he will reintroduce legislation empowering the Maryland attorney general to prosecute local police officers that he or she alleges are criminally at fault in officer-involved slayings.

Under current law, the attorney general investigates these killings but then hands the case to the local state’s attorney, who ultimately decided whether to prosecute the officer.

Many state’s attorneys have opposed Smith’s proposal, as they are unwilling to relinquish their prosecutorial authority and discretion regarding a potentially deadly crime in their jurisdictions.

But Smith said the public rightly perceives a conflict of interest when local prosecutors have discretion over whether to prosecute an officer of the same police force they rely on to conduct other criminal investigations and testify at trial.

If enacted, the legislation “completes the effort to ensure there is a level of independence in the investigation and prosecution” of police officers, Smith said.

A unit in the Attorney General’s Office investigated 23 fatalities involving police in its first year and so far none of the investigations have resulted in officers being charged, the office said last week.

The unit completed reports on 13 cases in the first year; in that time, local prosecutors have made decisions not to prosecute in 11 cases.

Smith and Moon will again sponsor legislation to prevent the jailing of people for having failed to pay a fine or judgment of under $5,000.

Repeal of these “body attachments” when so little is owed is part of “our classic efforts to stamp out all instances of debtors’ prisons that appear in the code,” Moon said.