Maryland leaders reassessing juvenile justice changes after high-profile crimes

Maryland officials are grappling with whether the state needs reforms to its juvenile justice laws as another summer punctuated by shootings, car thefts and other crimes involving young people comes to a close.

Even as the number of criminal complaints against juveniles is lower than before the pandemic began and has been on a downward trajectory for the past decade, some point to certain high-profile crimes as a sign that young people are out of control and the system should be overhauled. Others caution that it will take time for recent changes and new approaches to helping troubled young people to bear fruit.

The focus has been renewed this year with a record number of teens shot, including when gunfire erupted late one night in the Brooklyn Homes community, with multiple shooters firing and striking 30 people — most of them teens and young adults — following the Brooklyn Day community celebration. Two young adults were killed: 18-year-old Aaliyah Gonzalez and 20-year-old Kylis Fagbemi.

Meanwhile, a new governor and state juvenile services secretary came into office this year pledging to push Maryland toward further reforms. And lawmakers are kicking off a series of meetings to review possible changes to juvenile law on Wednesday.

“It hurts us more when kids are the ones perpetrating or falling victim, because we feel like we failed them,” said state Del. Luke Clippinger, a Democrat who represents Brooklyn and will be leading the review. “Honestly, I think we are reaching a point where there is no question, in some cases we have failed them and we need to do better.”

Clippinger chairs the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee, which will hear from police, prosecutors, public defenders and juvenile justice officials about the scope of the juvenile crime problem in Baltimore and beyond at the online meeting. It’s a first step toward potentially making changes to the law when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Acting Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley, left, and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott take questions from reporters outside Bay-Brook Elementary/Middle School in Brooklyn Thursday before hosting a community meeting.

Calls for accountability

The issue of juvenile justice reform has come up over and over as Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and his pick for police commissioner, Richard Worley, have toured the city hosting public forums ahead of his confirmation process.

Driven by either personal experiences, media coverage, or both, residents at the forums have described what they term a lack of accountability for young offenders, and have shared their desire for more intervention from police.

Scott and Worley have responded by saying their hands are essentially tied in some ways due to the changing juvenile justice system in Maryland.

Maryland has been gradually reshaping its juvenile justice system, as an increasing body of evidence has revealed young people’s brains are still developing, and they should not be treated the same as adults. The state has moved away from pure punishment and is moving more toward supervising them outside detention centers, while understanding why young people commit violent acts and working to treat and support them.

In 2022, the state set the minimum age for charging children criminally to 13 in most cases, banned incarceration for minor offenses and instituted time limits for how long a young person can be on probation.

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Another law passed that year requires that before police officers can question a minor, they must contact a parent or guardian and give the child an opportunity to speak to a lawyer.

Progressive lawmakers said the law about questioning juveniles, the Child Interrogation Protection Act, was meant to guard the rights of young people, who are more easily coerced into false confessions under the pressure of police questioning. Some police officers and prosecutors have said the new rules make it harder for them to investigate crimes involving young people — but public defenders have charged that officers aren’t following the law, rarely calling for emergency lawyers for youth.

This summer, Baltimore’s State’s Attorney Ivan Bates called the interrogation law “one of the worst pieces of legislation I’ve ever read” before slightly walking back his comments and expressing optimism about working with lawmakers and the governor “to ensure that we have laws that can keep residents safe.” State’s attorneys in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have also expressed concerns.

In a recent press release, Scott called for “building a different juvenile justice system from the ground up,” saying that the city is “trapped in a cycle where the same young people are consistently involved in the wrong behavior, and it’s frustrating to keep trying to hold them accountable through BPD, only to have the system fail them,” in an apparent reference to the Department of Juvenile Services.

But when asked for specifics, Scott has repeated much of the same rhetoric, without identifying any policy changes he would like to see.

At a community forum, Scott responded to questions about specifics by suggesting the governor would take the lead on any proposed fixes to state law.

And in response to questions from The Baltimore Banner, Scott again stopped short of identifying concrete changes he would like to see.

“We’ve taken significant steps to strengthen the way we’re doing that engagement at the city-level, but there is a long way to go — and tackling this problem holistically is certain to require reimagining the approach entirely,” Scott said in a written statement. “We finally have the partners at the state level who share our commitment to this effort, and we’ll continue to work with them.”

Vincent Schiraldi, acting secretary of juvenile services, testifies before a Maryland Senate budget subcommittee in Annapolis on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Changes ahead?

Democratic state leaders in Annapolis have signaled their intention to have a better working relationship with Baltimore officials generally, as well as to specifically review juvenile justice issues. But they are taking a deliberate approach in figuring out what, if anything, needs changing in the law.

Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, has said that juvenile crime and safety is among his top concerns. But when asked if he has specific reforms in mind, he offered a general response.

“We’re working on a legislative package addressing juvenile crime, addressing juvenile opportunities, addressing accountability, while also addressing the communities and neighborhoods that our juveniles are coming up in,” Moore told The Baltimore Banner. “They are very much going to be part of our package.”

When Moore took office in January, he appointed criminal justice reformer Vincent Schiraldi as the secretary of juvenile services, overseeing children who are in the justice system, both in custody and those in their communities.

Now more than seven months into the job, Schiraldi says he’s been to every state juvenile facility more than once and done 33 “listening tour” meetings around the state.

Schiraldi said that the scope of juvenile crime has been overblown, in part because a relative uptick over the past two years came after a record low level of crime during the height of the coronavirus pandemic — when more kids stayed home and the federal government flooded communities with financial assistance.

“I feel like from just watching TV, a lot of people would be thinking that things are different than they are,” Schiraldi said.

The number of complaints involving juveniles so far in 2023 is lower than pre-pandemic numbers. Violent and nonviolent juvenile crimes have both decreased by more than 50% over the last decade.

And all told, juvenile arrests account for just 7% of all arrests, as well as 7% of homicide arrests, according to DJS data.

What has increased significantly is nonviolent juvenile offenses, which are up 70% over last year. Much of the increase has come in auto thefts, largely due to the “Kia challenge” effect of young people being dared on social media to steal Kias and Hyundais.

And though children younger than 13 generally can no longer be charged in most cases, they can be identified as a “child in need of supervision” and routed into social services and other supports. The number of those referrals has spiked since the law changed, and at the same time, rearrests for those young people have dropped.

His department instead plans to balance incarceration with prevention.

“Incarceration is one tool in the tool belt for accountability,” Schiraldi said. “But it’s not the most effective tool and it’s certainly not the only tool.”

Over the last several months, the juvenile agency launched a Safe Summer initiative aimed at stemming gun violence “to productively occupy young people so they stay out of trouble,” Schiraldi said.

The state spread $5 million across 12 jurisdictions, with much of it focused on Prince George’s and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City, that have experienced the most gun crime. Schiraldi said he challenged his case managers “to really ratchet it up” to use the funds for positive programming for teens who have been involved in delinquent behavior.

”Some of them don’t have anything to do and that’s not a good situation,” Schiraldi said. The program has just concluded, so Schiraldi doesn’t have an assessment yet of how well it worked.

The next effort for DJS will be Thrive Academy, a pilot program launching at the end of the month, to focus resources on for about two dozen youths who are at the greatest risk of committing gun violence or being a victim of it.

The program will attempt to interrupt the cycle of violence by offering teens alternatives to arming themselves. The youths will have access to life coaches, help applying to apprenticeships or college and will be given a stipend as a financial incentive.

The program is modeled after a violence intervention program in West Baltimore, which may have reduced shootings in that part of the city last year.

Finding ‘a pathway forward’

And while Schiraldi works to try different programming for young people in the system, it’s up to state lawmakers to decide whether the laws that govern investigating and prosecuting youth crime need to be changed.

They’re starting a process of study that could culminate in proposals when lawmakers go back to Annapolis in January.

“The issues that we are seeing with juveniles and juvenile crime are significant and severe,” said Senate President Bill Ferguson. “I think that there are advocates who want to see a wholly different system. I think that re-imagining the entire system is an unlikely thing to happen in a single year.”

Ferguson, a Democrat, represents a Baltimore district that includes Brooklyn.

“What I saw in Brooklyn was horrific and is the worst-case scenario, but it is a symptom of a larger problem, and I think we have not quite diagnosed what the exact problem is,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson proffered some contributors to youth violence: poverty, social media pressure, easy access to guns.

“Something has to happen with juveniles,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to focus on diagnosing the appropriate problem before we get a fair solution.”

That’s what Clippinger, the House Judiciary chairman, has in mind as he convenes the first of what will likely be multiple hearings on juvenile justice Wednesday. Clippinger and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones were prompted to dive into the subject following the back-to-back shootings involving teens in Brooklyn and Salisbury this summer.

“The goal is to be deliberate and say: Here is where we are. And to hear from people how they’re seeing the system work on the ground,” Clippinger said.

Lawmakers will examine both the laws that are in place and how they are being implemented. Clippinger suggested that lawmakers may need to “nip and tuck” the current juvenile laws but said they also will keep an eye on how the new secretary is doing leading a department that has had “a lack of clear leadership and clear direction.”

As for Wednesday’s hearing, Clippinger said: “That’s going to kick off the conversation, and hope to provide a pathway forward.”

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