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End of auto-charging children as adults in Md. hinges on DJS, lawmaker says

Jack Hogan//September 12, 2023

End of auto-charging children as adults in Md. hinges on DJS, lawmaker says

By Jack Hogan

//September 12, 2023

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Will Smith, D-Montgomery.

The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services has renewed its call for the end of automatically charging children as adults for certain offenses. Whether the proposal becomes law, though, is largely up to the department, said a top lawmaker who chairs a committee through which the bill must pass.

Department Secretary Vincent Schiraldi said in virtual news conference Tuesday that trying children as adults has been shown to “increase, not decrease, violent recidivism amongst young people” and has exacerbated “terrible racial disparities in its implementation.”

As part of a report released Tuesday, the department recommended, as it did last legislative session, that lawmakers end automatically charging children as adults. The proposal didn’t make it out of the committee to which it was assigned for a final vote.

Under Maryland law, children 14 and older are automatically charged as adults if they’re accused of first-degree murder, first-degree rape or a first-degree sex offense. Children 16 and older are automatically charged as adults if they’re accused of a violent crime or handgun violation.

For more than a decade, lawmakers have sought to repeal the provision that allows children younger than 18 years old to be automatically tried as adults for certain crimes.

Whether a proposal to disallow all or some instances of children being charged as adults will advance in the legislature depends on the Department of Juvenile Services’ capacity to work with more children, said Sen. Will Smith, who chairs the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“The burden is on the department to prove that they are ready for this additional workload and for the successful implementation of that reform,” Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, said in a phone interview.

A meeting Wednesday of the House Judiciary Committee will include the Department of Juvenile Services, the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs’ Association, the Office of the Public Defender, the State’s Attorneys’ Association and the Maryland Judiciary.

It’s the first in what’s expected to be multiple hearings to address juvenile justice in the state, said committee Chair Del. Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore City Democrat.

The meetings are expected to shed some light on the department’s capacity to handle certain juvenile justice reforms.

“(The department) has had a huge challenge with vacancies,” Clippinger said. “That’s a challenge that the new secretary has to deal with and has been attempting to deal with.”

A more viable option, Smith said, may be for lawmakers to pass a scaled-back version of the bill, one that would end automatic charging as an adult for children younger than 16 charged with certain offenses.

The proposal, though, would retain automatic charging as an adult for children 16 or older charged with first-degree murder or attempted murder, first degree rape or attempted rape, second-degree murder, second-degree rape or attempted rape, carjacking or armed carjacking, voluntary manslaughter, and crimes of “criminal violence” under Maryland Criminal Law section 14-101, Smith said.

Smith said that his committee also plans to discuss ways to reform the state’s Children in Need of Supervision process and combat delinquency and chronic absenteeism from school, all of which he said can contribute to a child’s risk of being the perpetrator or victim of a crime.

The percentage of people incarcerated in Maryland for crimes they committed as children is twice the national average, said Heather Warnken, executive director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Baltimore. Nine out of 10 people in a Maryland prison for crimes they committed as children are people of color, she said.

The overcriminalization of young people, particularly young men who are Black or brown, is tied to the “superpredator” myth that criminologists peddled in the 1990s, predicting a wave of violent children that prompted a real panic and resulted in states charging children — mostly Black and brown children — as adults, according to the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative.

“Even those originally responsible for that term have owned the fact that it was not accurate,” said Warnken. “The damage that that has done continues to this day.”

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