A legislative work group voted to recommend legislators change Maryland laws mandating that minors accused of certain crimes be automatically charged as adults.
During a recent hearing, 13 members of the 29-person Juvenile Justice Reform Council voted in favor of the recommendation, while three members voted against it and another three abstained from the vote. Another 10 members were not present during the vote.
The recommendation was the first made this year by the workgroup, which was formed in 2019 by the General Assembly to make suggestions on which parts of the juvenile justice system could use changes via legislation.
The vote sets the stage for the state legislature to consider further reforms to the juvenile justice system. Last year, legislators passed a law prohibiting minors from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but also removed language in another bill that would’ve prohibited minors under the age of 13 from being charged with certain crimes.
Advocates for ending the practice argued that the state unnecessarily automatically charges minors as adults for 33 offenses. That puts the burden on youths to argue they still should be considered as such when they’re accused of crimes ranging from firearms possession to murder.
Studies say that Maryland is one of only nine states to send more than 200 minors, the majority of whom are black, to adult court each year.
“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the [Department of Justice] ... doctors’ research, meta-analysis all say that the same kid for the same crime tried in adult court is more likely to go on to commit further offenses and to be a greater risk to the public safety,” said Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the Public Defender’s Office’s Juvenile Division.
Nate Balis, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group, said officials have learned more about the science of brain development and how the practice of charging minors as adults can negatively affect their ability to re-enter into society upon their release from prison.
“We’ve learned and other states have responded. That’s why we stand where we are and we are behind,” Balis said. “It’s dangerous for the young people who are being charged as adults and it’s dangerous for the public’s safety.”
Detractors argued that the state would be compromising public safety by allowing minors accused of violent crimes to be kept in the juvenile court system when first charged.
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Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger used the example of Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenager who was found guilty of two murders in Virginia and six in Maryland for his role as half of the two-man sniper team that killed 10 people in the Washington metropolitan area in 2002.
“Are we really saying that [Malvo] ... should start in the juvenile court?” asked Shellenberger. “I just can’t see how we can honestly consider that proposal.”
Del. Jesse Pippy, a Republican representing parts of Carroll and Frederick counties, said he was concerned about the Department of Juvenile Services’ ability to effectively house juveniles accused of more violent crimes.
While juvenile defendants charged as adults are regularly held at juvenile facilities while awaiting trial, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed said that Maryland law allows for some to be housed in adult facilities. He added that, if left alone, Maryland would be in violation of federal law, which requires all juvenile defendants to be housed in juvenile facilities until their trial date.
Pippy brought up the 2018 incident at the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, where several teens were charged with inciting an alleged riot that officials said resulted in three staff members being hospitalized for their injuries.
“I know Sam [Abed] probably doesn’t like to reminisce about that instance, but that was a serious situation where the kids, as Ms. Egan would call them ... literally overtook the facility and injured staff,” he said.
While critics argued that the 13-person majority did not constitute a true majority of the 29-member council, the vote was affirmed as valid by a Department of Legislative Services attorney, according to Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon.