In 2018, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a scathing report against the United States’ treatment of children in the criminal justice system, concluding that “violations of children’s human rights on federal, state, and local levels” were rampant. Two years later, Human Rights for Kids (HRFK) released the first ever National State Ratings Report on Human Rights Protection for Children in the U.S. Justice System. The report rated every state on the presence or absence of 12 categories of law that are essential to creating a legal framework that safeguards the human rights afforded to children in the justice system as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Our failure to adhere to these human rights standards for our own children has severely diminished our moral authority to hold others accountable for human rights violations on the international stage.
The global community regards the protections of the CRC and ICCPR as indispensable when it comes to the treatment of children who come into conflict with the law. Tragically, the United States is the only nation that has not ratified the CRC, which is why human rights abuses against children in the justice system have proliferated. Our failure to ratify the CRC coupled with the lack of statutory protections at the state level, have resulted in the largest government-sanctioned human rights abuse against children in the world today. While a bipartisan group of states including California, North Dakota and Arkansas are doing comparatively well at protecting their children’s human rights, HRFK found that Maryland was regrettably tied for last in the nation as one of the Worst Human Rights Offenders.
Among Maryland’s most notable human rights violations, several stand out: failing to provide legal counsel to children before they are interrogated by law enforcement; allowing children younger than 10 to be arrested and adjudicated in juvenile court; allowing children younger than 14 to be tried and sentenced as adults; incarcerating children in adult jails and prisons; allowing children to be placed in solitary confinement; using the same mandatory minimums for children that are used on adults; convicting children under the felony murder rule; and, lastly, sentencing children to die in prison.
To put it bluntly, what Maryland has done and is actively doing can best be described as a crime against humanity. This is what history will teach of this moment and the universal condemnation of the international community against our treatment of children in the justice system — most of whom are children of color. Black children in Maryland are more than two and a half times more likely to be charged as adults than non-Black children, and they are even more grossly overrepresented in the state’s juvenile justice system.
Many politicians in Annapolis would be eager to profess their belief that Black Lives Matter. But Black life cannot matter in Maryland if the lives of Black children do not matter, and the lives of Black children cannot matter if the state is not willing to protect their basic human rights. The lives of Black children cannot matter if policymakers are willing to sacrifice their child status upon the altar of “public safety” by sentencing them by the same standards used for adults. The lives of Black children cannot matter if we’re willing to label elementary school children “delinquents.” The lives of Black children cannot matter if children not old enough to marry or enter into contracts are allowed to waive their constitutional rights without first consulting legal counsel.
The good news in all of this is that it is never too late to do what is right even if it should have been done a long time ago. Several bills in the Maryland House and Senate, if passed and signed by the governor, would drastically change how Maryland treats children in the justice system and align our values with human rights norms. HB 315 by Del. Sandy Bartlett and Sen. Jill Carter would require children to consult with an attorney before waiving their constitutional rights. HB 1187 by Del. Luke Clippinger and Senator Carter would, among other important reforms, establish a minimum age for children to be adjudicated delinquent. And awaiting Gov. Hogan’s signature is SB 494 by Sen. Chris West and Del. Jazz Lewis, which would retroactively end life and de facto life without parole sentences for children and allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences.
Do the lives of Black children matter to the state of Maryland? That answer depends, in part, on whether the state is willing to safeguard their human rights. If they are and the lives of Black children matter, then the enactment of these bills into law must be the highest priority. Our children deserve grace. Our children deserve mercy. Our children deserve a chance at redemption. This is justice too and by providing it to our children we might just find it for itself as well.