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Baltimore Sun: Despite calls to veto, Gov. Wes Moore to sign hotly debated juvenile justice bill

Published May 15, 2024

By Hannah Gaskill

The Baltimore Sun

Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun

At what is slated to be Gov. Wes Moore’s last bill-signing ceremony of the year, the Democratic governor will sign sweeping juvenile justice legislation Thursday morning, signaling a win for prosecutors and law enforcement who say crime among Maryland youth is out of control.

The legislation will create oversight to ensure the Department of Juvenile Services has clearer communication with police and local prosecutors. It also will create new opportunities for rehabilitative and diversionary services for younger children alleged to have committed car theft and codify a state-run program that targets youth most likely to be the victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

“We are incredibly optimistic about the change this legislation will begin to have within our juvenile system,” said Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan J. Bates, a Democrat. “While it’s not a cure-all for a system that has long been plagued with a host of glaring deficiencies, it certainly is a positive start to addressing some of those issues.”

Bates and his fellow state’s attorneys largely led the charge for Annapolis lawmakers to address a recent spike in carjackings, car thefts and firearms charges among Maryland children. He said that House Bill 814 accounted for about 85% of the reforms he asked for.

Once signed by Moore, the new juvenile justice law will take full effect Nov. 1.

But those who oppose the yet-to-be-signed bill have waged a veto campaign, arguing that Moore should work on implementing solutions through his executive powers.

“Because Wes Moore doesn’t have line-item veto in Maryland, signing it or not is a package deal,” said Heather Warnken, the executive director of the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. “Some of it is deeply counter productive and will exacerbate Maryland’s shameful racial disparities.”

According to the 2023 data resource guide from the Department of Juvenile Services, children of color were overrepresented among the agency’s intakes and detentions between fiscal years 2018 and 2023.

The legislation covers broad ground, from oversight of executive branch agencies to school policy. But the portions of the bill that caused the most consternation were measures that some in its opposition allege penalize children for the failures of adults.

As it was sent to Moore, the bill gives juvenile court judges the ability to extend probationary periods if a child has two or more unexcused absences to their court-ordered rehabilitation program.

It also expands the list of charges 10- to 12-year-old children can face to include certain firearm offenses, aggravated animal cruelty and third-degree sex offenses, which include using a weapon or threatening or physically harming someone while also committing sexual assault.

Under current law, children between 10 and 12 can only be charged for crimes deemed violent, including carjacking, arson, murder and rape.

The bill’s critics have questioned the necessity of this policy change because the amount of youth in this age range who commit these and other crimes is small.

“We were talking about a very small number of young people getting a very large amount of attention in the media and the legislature,” Warnken said.

According to Juvenile Services, 12-year-olds accounted for 1.5% of intake referrals for fiscal year 2023, and children 11 and under made up only 1%.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore Democrat, and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat — the bill’s sponsors — acknowledged the small population size as the legislation moved closer to Moore’s desk.

The 2024 bill has faced constant comparison to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2022 — another Clippinger-sponsored law that established the limit on criminally charging children under 13.

That legislation, the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, was crafted from recommendations from the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, which met for two years to study data and national best practices.

Lawmakers who voted against the 2024 bill noted the absence of data that was present in 2022, saying this year’s process was rushed and based largely on anecdotes from state prosecutors and police.

“There’s definitely been a backlash after there was some real progress made in improving the system — and note that none of those improvements have had an opportunity to have real impact on community safety,” said David Jaros, a University of Baltimore law professor and faculty director for the school’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform. “Those are long-term investments.”

Like Jaros, advocates and lawmakers against the bill say not enough time has elapsed to know if the Juvenile Justice Reform Act is effective.

Warnken said that the bill’s opponents felt they “had to play against undoing things that were in their infancy.”

“Sadly, it’s pretty common in public safety policymaking to be impatient,” she said. “Implementing the solutions right and bearing fruit … take time.”

Reform advocates conceded that there are positive portions of the bill — namely the creation of the Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices, which will begin meeting June 1.

A coalition of organizations against the bill called on the legislature to strip the legislation of all of its measures aside from the portion that created the commission.

Still, Jaros called those more favorable measures “window dressing on a bill that is bad policy.”

“You cannot dress up a massive piece of legislation like this that has so many bad consequences for, particularly, kids of color,” point to portions of it and say this is either a “balanced bill” or one that will make us safer, he said.

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