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Maryland among the worst in protecting kids in the justice system | COMMENTARY

A 19-year old Baltimore man describes his experiences in the Maryland juvenile justice system, including being shackled.
A 19-year old Baltimore man describes his experiences in the Maryland juvenile justice system, including being shackled. (Amy Davis)

The coronavirus pandemic and social unrest from the past year has exposed many of the existing inequalities and fault-lines that have been deeply embedded in our country for some time. But as we work toward a more just future, we cannot ignore how our current policies affect our most vulnerable citizens: our children.

The United States is known around the world as a protector of human rights. But when it comes to how we treat kids in the criminal justice system, we too often fall short of international human rights standards. We are the only UN member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But while we have work to do as a country, it is also well past time for Maryland to reckon with our own policies and take action.

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According to a 2020 report from Human Rights for Kids, Maryland ranks among the worst states in the nation when it comes to protecting the human rights of kids in our justice system. In Maryland, children under 14 years of age can be subject to transfer and tried in the adult criminal justice system in certain cases. For these young children, as well as older teenagers who are tried in our adult courts, they face the exact same mandatory minimum sentences that a 30- or 40-year-old adult who commits the same crime faces. Worse yet, when these children are transferred, they can be incarcerated with adults in our jails and prisons, and there are no laws to protect them from being placed in traumatizing conditions, such as solitary confinement.

Over the past several years, we’ve watched in horror as reports circulated on social media from other states showing very young Black children in first and second grade being led away from their elementary schools in handcuffs. Yet here in Maryland, children as young as 7 years old are deemed competent to be adjudicated delinquent in our juvenile justice system. We are also one of 30 states that has not passed legislation banning life without parole sentences for children — an egregious human rights violation deemed inhumane around the world and prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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The use of such cruel punishment means that regardless of how much a child matures over time, they are deemed unworthy of ever living in free society again and condemned to die in prison. Currently, over 300 Marylanders are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18, accounting for 15% of all individuals serving life sentences in our state. According to a bipartisan amicus brief filed by Human Rights for Kids on behalf of Republican and Democratic state legislators in 2019, Maryland is one of only six states that has not implemented the U.S. Supreme Court’s watershed decisions in Miller v. Alabama and Montgomery v. Louisiana, which banned life without parole sentences for the vast majority of children. Every other state has either passed legislation banning this inhumane sentence for children, does not have children serving such sentences, or has provided re-sentencing hearings in compliance with Miller and Montgomery.

Perhaps one of the most glaring aspects of these injustices in Maryland is the fact that conservative states like North Dakota and Arkansas, as well as our neighbors in Virginia and West Virginia, are doing a comparatively better job at protecting the rights of children than we are. All four states have banned both life and de facto life without parole sentences from being imposed on children. North Dakota and Virginia have due process protections in place that require children to consult with their parents or legal guardians before they can waive their constitutional rights or be interrogated by law enforcement. West Virginia also has statutes in place that prohibit children from being placed in solitary confinement and protects them from being incarcerated in adult jails or prisons.

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Last session, we championed House Bill 1437 to end the practice of sentencing our children to die in prison and allow judges to depart from mandatory minimums when sentencing youth in adult court, and we will be re-introducing this legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January. Our values and morality are reflected in the laws we pass, and we have a long way to go in Maryland to demonstrate that we believe that all of our children deserve hope and a chance to grow and thrive.

Del. Jazz Lewis (jazz.lewis@house.state.md.us) is a Democrat representing Prince George’s County in the state legislature; he serves on the Judiciary Committee and as chair of the family law subcommittee. Del. Dana Stein (dana.stein@house.state.md.us), also a Democrat, represents Baltimore County and is a board member of Human Rights For Kids.

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