Maryland juvenile justice reform bill is a lazy attempt to rectify systemic crises

By Sophie Foster

Opinion Editor

Maryland legislators are currently embedded in dialogue regarding what has proven to be a contentious matter: the topic of juvenile crime and justice, as well as the potential for reform.

The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is presently working on a bill that cannot gain footing, according to WBAL. Crafted in response to recent increases in car thefts, carjackings, and gun violence from juveniles, the bill contains several deeply concerning elements. Perhaps the most alarming is that it would reverse a current law that prevents those under the age of 13 from being charged with some crimes.

According to Maryland Matters, several shifts encompassed by this bill include the extension of possible probation for children with misdemeanor offenses from six months to a year, and from one year to two for felony offenses. Should the bill pass, it would mean a conservative inclination from a Democrat-led state legislature, a move that would be unsettling for many Maryland residents.

Among those unsettled by the bill’s implications is the Maryland chapter of the NAACP, which presently takes the stance that it fails to adequately respond to the causes at the core of youth crime.

“The adults in the Maryland General Assembly are seeking to blame children for adult problems rather than being responsible adults by addressing these youth violence problems in a way that lifts our young people,” President of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP Kobi Little said, according to WBAL. “How can we make sure that young people are getting the education they need, the housing that they need, the health care that they need, the hope they need?”

The governor, meanwhile, has yet to make a decisive or impactful statement on the matter to assuage resident concerns. When delivering perspectives, Governor Wes Moore oscillates between commendation and condemnation, generating further uncertainty.

According to NBC, Gov. Moore believes the state should rethink the ways in which juvenile cases involving firearms are processed and increase probation, both of which are issues to which the bill responds.

            Additionally, however, Gov. Moore called for improvements in approaching systemic crises embedded in Maryland’s justice system.

“We need accountability when someone repeatedly violates the law, yes, but we also need accountability for the adults and the systems responsible for preventing and responding to those situations,” Gov. Moore said, according to NBC.

If the governor truly believes in this notion of increased accountability, though, this bill is not the pathway to achieving his goals as he seems to believe it is.

There are numerous elements of life for Maryland’s youth that inform the state’s juvenile crime habits.

According to Baltimore’s Child, close to 2,000 children in Baltimore alone are currently in foster care, many of whom are without proper placement or living in hotels and office buildings.

A 2022 estimation claims that roughly 85,000 occupied housing units in Baltimore have “dangerous lead hazards,” directly impacting health and development for children living in these homes, according to Maryland Matters. A greater sum of 96,000 households do not have wi-fi connectivity, jeopardizing children’s access to educational materials and resources and turning them away from academic prosperity, according to the Abell Foundation.

Furthermore, according to WBAL, juveniles — meaning, in this case, individuals under the age of 18 — commit less than 10% of the state’s violent crimes. In fact, according to WYPR, juvenile crime rates are currently actually falling statewide.

With all of this in mind, it is absurd to try to justify a bill that would further criminalize struggling youth in response to a problem that, statistically, is on the decline. If Maryland legislators are concerned with accountability and rehabilitation, that is exactly where attention should be focused: accountability for the systems stifling impoverished juveniles, and rehabilitation for the youth already grappling with the criminal justice system as a direct result of that impoverishment.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: Systems and structures of prison and jailing have long been contentious issues nationwide.

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