Anne Arundel Police complaints against reform are latest chapter in Maryland’s troubled history with youth justice

MacArthur Middle School on Fort Meade, Thursday, January 26, 2023.

In 1994, as lawmakers nationwide grappled with decades-high violence by formulating the federal crime bill regularly criticized for inflaming mass incarceration, Maryland’s political leaders also reconsidered their approach to justice, and specifically how that ideal applied to children.

For centuries, Maryland operated under a common law presumption that children younger than 14 were incapable of committing crimes. In cases against youth ages 7 to 14, the burden was on the state to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant both knew what they were doing and that it was wrong.


Leading into the 1994 state legislative session, however, judicial players across Maryland pleaded for change, calling the presumption “outdated” and an “anachronism,” out of place in time. By the end of the session, with only nine opposing votes, the General Assembly overwhelmingly abolished the common law doctrine, deepening the state’s judicial reach to children of all ages.

That sweeping jurisdiction was upheld for nearly three decades until last year, when state lawmakers considered the recommendations of a bipartisan reform council and passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. Among other policy shifts, the law restricted the state’s ability to charge children younger than 13 for most offenses, one year younger than recommended by the United Nations but the first law of its kind in Maryland since 1994.


Earlier this month, less than a year after the law went into effect, the age barrier sparked furor from local law enforcement when a 12-year-old student brought a handgun to MacArthur Middle School in Fort Meade. In an online post, the Anne Arundel County Police Department denounced the new reforms, saying there were “NO APPLICABLE CHARGES” for the student.

“A 12-year-old can no longer be charged with certain crimes, including bringing a handgun & ammunition to school,” the police wrote in bold, claiming dozens of other cases involving juvenile suspects have been similarly capsized.

In response to the police department’s post, Republican lawmakers quickly announced their intention to repeal last year’s reforms. The law’s original sponsors, meanwhile, are considering adjustments requiring resources be directed to youth involved in someone else’s death.

Decades of juvenile incarceration

Since the 1994 bill abolishing the common law doctrine, Maryland’s approach to juvenile justice has been condemned for unnecessarily bringing young people, and disproportionately young people of color, into the justice system.

According to the state Office of the Public Defender, two-thirds of children removed from their homes are removed for non-felony offenses. And a 2022 racial equity impact note from the Department of Legislative Services found that Black children made up 84% of Maryland’s under-13 incarcerated population, despite accounting for only 30% of the age group statewide.

Considering several definitions in the law, including the state’s age jurisdiction, a 2020 survey by the nonprofit organization Human Rights for Kids also found Maryland to be among the nation’s worst protectors of human rights for those in its youth justice system, ranking alongside Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.

A growing body of research has shown confinement to be among the least effective and most expensive ways to respond to juvenile delinquency, tending to increase the chances that a young person will be arrested again in the future. While state data has shown a 78% decrease in juvenile complaints and a 64% drop in juvenile detention over the last decade, advocates for reform have pushed to keep low-risk, minor offenders out of the justice system whenever possible.

Jenny Egan is the chief attorney in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Baltimore Juvenile Division. In 2015, she also co-founded the Baltimore Action Legal Team, a community law group designed to make the legal system more accessible to the public.


In an interview with the Capital, Egan said Maryland’s over-arresting of children was especially unnecessary considering the “vast majority” of cases aren’t sent to court. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy devoted to children’s welfare, more than 1,000 preadolescent Marylanders arrested in 2020 were never prosecuted.

Even without a trial, the public defender said the first interaction between a child and the justice system could lead to lasting harm.

“The arrest itself traumatizes and stigmatizes a child for years to come,” Egan said. “It is inappropriate to treat childish misbehavior with arrest and prosecution.”

Legislative reform

In 2019, a bipartisan group of youth justice stakeholders was formed to address the state’s approach to juvenile delinquency. For the next two years, the Juvenile Justice Reform Council developed a framework of policies that would increase public safety and reduce recidivism among young offenders. Its recommendations were packaged into the legislation passed last year.

In addition to changing the court’s age jurisdiction, the law established time limits for probation, simplified the process to connect youth with diversion programs and prohibited the state from committing children for misdemeanors or violations of probation. According to a 2015 AECF report commissioned by the state Department of Juvenile Services, one of every three children incarcerated in Maryland was imprisoned for probation violations.

After the MacArthur Middle School incident, Anne Arundel County Police shared a spreadsheet with media outlining the 167 youth-involved calls they have responded to since the bill’s enactment in July. While the most reported offense was assault, 90% were listed as simple assaults, a broad misdemeanor. The youngest offender was a 4-year-old student.


Additionally, a 5-year-old was listed for “fondling,” a 7-year-old was noted for vandalism and an 8-year-old was marked for taking something from their elementary school.

Noting examples of behavior that she doesn’t believe warrant an arrest, Egan said the list was “an exact illustration” of why the reform law was passed.

The police department’s online post was quickly deleted — a news conference scheduled for later that day was also canceled — and officials have refused to provide any further comment on the middle school event or their stance on the reform bill.

Alternatives to handcuffs

Since the police department’s complaint, lawmakers on both sides of the issue and at several levels of state representation have responded. In television interviews this month, former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the school incident was a “perfect example” of why he avoided signing the bill last year. Similarly, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat, told reporters he would address the legislation if he was serving in Annapolis instead of Washington, D.C.

State Sen. Jill Carter, another Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the 2022 bill after serving on the juvenile justice committee, has defended the reforms and criticized police claims that they’re blocked from helping the youth they encounter.

“Law enforcement is incorrect,” Carter told Fox45 Baltimore on the first day of session. “They have tools. They are not utilizing the tools.”


The senator did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Though the Anne Arundel and Annapolis police departments have their own diversion programs, including the Fresh S.T.A.R.T. initiative and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, both police and family members have the option to file a Child in Need of Supervision, or CINS request. Once submitted to the Department of Juvenile Services, an intake officer meets with youth and guardians to discuss appropriate interventions to address the child’s specific needs.

“Instead of having youth go to the courts and get caught in the system, they’re still able to be served without being incarcerated,” said Eric Solomon, a department spokesperson.

In November, Carter pre-filed a bill that would require intake officers to file a CINS petition for any child under the age of 10 who is somehow involved in another person’s death. The proposal is named after NyKayla Strawder, a 15-year-old girl from Baltimore City who was accidentally shot and killed by her 9-year-old neighbor in August.

Solomon could not confirm how often Anne Arundel Police have used the CINS service, though he said law enforcement departments throughout the state have been trained on the program. Area-specific CINS programs are also available in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George’s County.

Carter’s memorial bill is scheduled for a Feb. 8 committee hearing.


Del. Sandy Bartlett, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee, also defended the reforms, saying that with both children and adults, “simply locking them up and throwing away the key doesn’t solve anything.”

“The tentacles of violence expand so very far,” Bartlett told the Capital. “Merely locking up that one child does not take away all of the ripples that led into what happened at MacArthur Middle School. We’ve got to do all that we can to prevent anything from happening to our children.”

Through the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services, Local Care Teams in each county are also available to connect at-risk children and families with a curated slate of state, private and nonprofit programs. These services are designed to provide families with a comprehensive action plan that could help satisfy the needs of a household, said Alli Holstrom, chief program and compliance officer with the Anne Arundel County Partnership for Children, Youth & Families.

Holstrom said Local Care Teams in Anne Arundel County review more than 200 cases per year, with many referrals coming from the school system. Since July, she said neither the Anne Arundel nor Annapolis police departments have referred a case to them.

Efforts to repeal reform

Republican lawmakers have announced plans to rescind last year’s reform legislation and restore the system’s jurisdiction over young children.

“We have to reinstate the ability of law enforcement within the juvenile system to charge all children, regardless of age,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga, who’s working on a replacement bill with her Baltimore County colleague, Del. Lauren Arikan. “If people in our society know that there will be very swift and direct consequences if you bring a loaded firearm to school, there will be fewer firearms in schools.”


Szeliga, whose bill would face an uphill battle against Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, said she was not advocating for heightened incarceration, but that more accountability was needed for youth.

“We are sending a very mixed message right now and it needs to be clear and direct: we are going to protect innocent students,” Szeliga said.

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Del. Rachel Munoz, an Anne Arundel County Republican also serving on the House Judiciary Committee, called last year’s bill well-intentioned, but cited concerns that children would be further exposed to criminal activity if held to a lower criminal standard.

“A lot of the bills that come through are by people who have no law enforcement background, no legal background or experience,” Munoz said in a phone interview, “and they get so invested in their legislation that when people come to them and show them, ‘we know you’re trying to do x, but this is actually going to cause y,’ they don’t want to hear it.”

While Bartlett said she was “disappointed” by the police department’s post, she said she hopes the stakeholders most affected by last year’s bill — law enforcement, educators, advocates and parents — can come together to discuss its impact now that the reforms are live.

Szeliga described the current law as “recidivism on steroids,” though no DJS data on recidivism — which is naturally compiled over a long period of time — is available since the reforms were passed. When asked whether she had seen any data indicating higher trends of youth crime, she said she had not, but that she has seen “report after report after report” in the news about juvenile violence.


According to a letter sent by the principal, there was no evidence that the 12-year-old student at MacArthur Middle School had threatened anyone with the handgun.

“The fact that children get a hold of dangerous things does not mean that they are committing crimes,” Egan said. “It means that children are living in a state, in a world where they are not protected. And the idea that we want to punish these children rather than hold adults in power and adults who have power directly over children responsible is why we passed this law.”

Under current state law, the maximum punishment for gun owners whose weapons are stored where children can access them is a $1,000 fine. For the third year in a row, legislators this session will be considering a bill that would add imprisonment as a possible punishment for such negligence.