Op-ed: Maryland Juvenile Justice Reform Bill first step in helping Black youth trapped in system

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Joshua Rovner, Senior Advocacy Associate for The Sentencing Project. (Photo/sentencingproject.org)

Escaping the Maryland Maze

By Josh Rovner

Maryland’s juvenile justice system is a tangled maze, and Black youth are much more likely to be trapped in it.

Young kids, often with learning disabilities, get arrested. Students charged for the first time, even on low-level offenses, can be locked up. Juvenile probation orders hurdles in kids’ paths, assuring years of system involvement. And only two states automatically transfer more youths into adult courts.

Other jurisdictions have already addressed many of these flaws within their own borders. Maryland, on the other hand, punted to a blue-ribbon panel of experts.

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After a year of meetings, the Juvenile Justice Reform Council (JJRC) issued a report with common-sense recommendations bolstered by data revealing unjust racial disparities. With disparate treatment growing at each point of contact with the justice system, Black youth are five times as likely as their white peers to be incarcerated nationally, a ratio that increases to seven times as likely in Maryland.

In Maryland and elsewhere, none of this comes cheap. Youth detention and commitment facilities consume half the Department of Juvenile Service’s $271 million annual budget.

Del. Luke Clippinger and Sen. Jill P. Carter crafted a very good bill, HB1187/SB853, based on JJRC’s recommendations. It would divert more kids from prosecution, exclude low-level charges from juvenile incarceration, keep most kids under 13 away from courts entirely, and shorten the terms of probation.

It shouldn’t have required legislation in 2021, but here we are. Better late than never.

Nevertheless, the bill has a serious omission: it fails to address the multiple entrances that direct Black teenagers into adult courts. The process is called automatic transfer, and Maryland uses it aggressively.

The JJRC offered two weak recommendations on transfer: share some more data and hold some more meetings. That timidity might explain why a very good reform bill isn’t a great one.

Here’s what we already know: hundreds of 16- and 17-year olds must be sent to adult courts without a hearing before a juvenile court judge to determine if it’s appropriate. Commonly, charges are dismissed or sent back to the juvenile courts after more than three months of delay and detention. This is not a new problem. During the 1980s and 1990s, the state legislature designed it that way.

More and more offenses have been added to a list that once only contained murder. Maryland now automatically transfers youth charged with any one of 33 separate offenses into its adult criminal courts. Nearly all of these youths are Black.

Maryland’s status as an outlier is getting worse. States from Virginia to Delaware to Florida to Utah to California have rolled back their harsh transfer laws both because the laws they replaced unfairly ignored each teenager’s maturity, adverse childhood experiences, and specific involvement in the offense, but also because study after study finds charging teenagers as if they were adults harms public safety. Youth in the adult system are more likely to reoffend, and with more serious offenses, than similar youth who were kept in the juvenile courts.

When studying automatic transfer, the JJRC found partial data covering most of the state. Over 75 percent of youth subjected to automatic transfer here are Black. Waiting on a handful of localities to provide their data offers a new, convenient, and ultimately irrelevant excuse to stall.

Juvenile justice reform and racial justice demand an end to this pointless and punitive practice. It’s hurting our kids.

The bill is a good first step and should still be passed. Let’s not delay adoption of some of the more humane and effective youth justice practices implemented elsewhere. Passage will ensure that more children are treated with community-based services that will lead to better public safety outcomes at a faction of the cost of deep-end incarceration. The bill will further prepare the juvenile system to help the young people that Maryland has discarded in the adult criminal justice system. It’s a matter of racial justice.

But none of us should be patient about these delays. It’s time to act.

Josh Rovner is Senior Advocacy Associate at The Sentencing Project.

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