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Baltimore Sun: How to address juvenile justice issues? Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson says there’s a need for cohesion, responsibility

PUBLISHED: December 17, 2023 at 5:00 a.m. | UPDATED: December 17, 2023 at 5:35 a.m.

By Hannah Gaskill

Baltimore Sun


Photo by Baltimore Sun


In spite of a reported decline in youth crime and Baltimore’s slowed murder rate, Maryland’s juvenile justice policy has left some residents fearful and angry with their representatives in Annapolis, and confused about what their state laws actually do — especially in the face of a spate of car thefts.


“The facts matter, but so does the perception,” Senate President Bill Ferguson, a South Baltimore Democrat, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun last week.

Ferguson is holding a town hall Monday night to talk about both the facts and people’s perception with his constituents. Ultimately, however, he has no intention of pulling back recently passed child justice policies.


In 2022, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Child Interrogation Protection Act, which requires police officers to immediately notify a child’s parent or guardian when they are taken into custody and to provide children with the opportunity to speak to an attorney before they are interrogated — the same civil right offered to adults. If officers willfully opt not to comply with the law, any statement made by a minor is deemed inadmissible in court.

The law does not prohibit law enforcement from speaking to children when they are not in police custody.


But limited communication between criminal justice agencies and a lack of understanding of the law on the part of police and prosecutors has skewed some Marylanders’ perception of what the Child Interrogation Protection Act is, thinking that it bars police from talking to children — wholesale.


Ferguson wants to rectify that.


“The idea that police officers cannot talk to children when they’re trying to gather facts for a crime — that’s not true. It is just simply not true,” he said. “When I tell people the law is that children have … the same right to an attorney that an adult does, and that’s the law, they say that sounds reasonable.”


Joined by House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger, Del. Robbyn Lewis and Del. Mark Edelson, all Democrats representing South Baltimore, the Senate president will address constituent concerns Monday night at 6:30 p.m. at the National Federation of the Blind in South Baltimore.


Vincent Schiraldi, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services; Monique Brown, the deputy commissioner of Patrol and the Community Policing Bureau for the Baltimore Police Department; and Cate Rosenblatt from the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office, are scheduled to speak.


Ferguson also wants ensure that law enforcement agencies are following the law, which has been largely flouted by Baltimore City police officers. A September investigation from The Baltimore Sun found that, of 77 juvenile arrests made by Baltimore police in July 2023, only one child called the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s 24/7 Youth Access to Counsel Hotline, which connects kids in police custody to attorneys who can explain their Miranda rights, including the right to an attorney and the right not to answer questions from police.

According to a 2022 news release from the ACLU of Maryland announcing the law’s passage, approximately 90% of children waive their constitutional rights when questioned by law enforcement. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations from as recent as April 2022 found that 34% of exonerated people under 18 had falsely confessed at the time of their alleged offense.


Ferguson has been trying to understand why vehicle thefts are up, and how to address Marylanders’ worries while respecting children’s civil rights.


He said he’s witnessed the breakdown in how the new policies are meant to function, pointing to a real-time “case study,” where two kids committed a robbery in Butchers Hill earlier this year. According to Ferguson, they were taken to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, but were released shortly thereafter “without having any paperwork filled out,” eliciting confusion and frustration among some Baltimoreans.


According to the most recent Department of Juvenile Services Data Resource Guide, complaints against minors for crimes of violence have dropped 53% from 2013 to 2022, and nearly 5% from 2021 to 2022.


A similar incident occurred in Patterson Park shortly after Butchers Hill, Ferguson said — “with almost the same fact pattern”: A 13-year-old accessed a firearm and committed robbery. Only this time, Ferguson explained, the child was detained.


“If you have a 13-year-old running around with a gun, there is something seriously wrong and we have to intervene in that kid’s life, and that kid’s family’s life, to change the direction of where that child is headed,” said Ferguson. “When we have situations where kids are sent home right away without any services — without any form of accountability — it reinforces a narrative for that child, but, more importantly, … any person that child talks to, that this is OK.”


Ferguson isn’t the only lawmaker to take notice. Clippinger convened three interim meetings of the House Judiciary Committee to address state prosecutors, public defenders, members of the judiciary, police representatives and organizations that run diversion programs in preparation to tackle the problem during the 2024 legislative session.

Speaking before the Judiciary Committee in September, Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson, a Democrat and the president of the Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association, said the recent reforms put into place by the legislature “came from a good place” to address past and present harms in the juvenile justice system.


“However, in order to address those harms, one can overshoot the goal and create new issues which negatively impact our society,” Gibson said.


Gibson emphasized that, after a problem is recognized in a child, the state needs to address the root cause of the problem with diversion programming and services while holding the child accountable for the harm they’ve caused.


“Some of our current laws inhibit our ability to successfully interact with our youth,” he said.

During the 2023 legislative session, Senate lawmakers criticized the Department of Juvenile Services for a lack of accountability. That combined with a slate of policies passed in recent years that will take time before their effects can be measured made the confirmation process for Schiraldi, Gov. Wes Moore’s pick to head the department, rocky.


Schiraldi is a former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction who told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing in February that he plans to lead the agency by increasing community engagement and creating additional educational and work opportunities for juveniles in the justice system.


Senate Republicans worried the policy prescriptions he proposed to quell juvenile crime didn’t focus enough on accountability. Schiraldi was confirmed on a party-line vote.

Members of the state’s minority party are hungry for accountability.


In announcing their 2024 legislative agenda, Republican lawmakers said last month that they intend to roll back some recent juvenile justice laws, including the Child Interrogation Act and the limit the legislature put on criminally charging children under 13. Under a law passed in 2022, children aged 10 and up can only be charged with crimes of violence, like rape and murder.


While he did not indicate that recent juvenile justice legislation would be rolled back, Ferguson said that the legislature may make some tweaks.


“We have to find a way to improve the system,” he said. “Changing the law is a piece of that equation, but if we don’t have an executive coordination that’s going to help fix the problem, it doesn’t matter what laws are on the books right now.”


Tackling juvenile justice from a different angle, Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan J. Bates and Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy announced their support for several pieces of legislation Thursday, including a bill that would increase the penalty for illegal firearm possession and car theft among minors. Bates said that “curbing the rise of juvenile crime … is a top priority” for his office in 2024.


“The proposed changes are about equity in our juvenile justice system and are reasonable and effective measures to improve public safety, especially concerning our youthful offenders,” said Bates.


While lawmakers, advocates and Maryland residents search for a single entity to pin the rise in vehicle thefts and robberies to — police problems, failures of the Department of Juvenile Services, recently passed legislation — Ferguson sees it as a lack of cohesion among law enforcement, prosecutors and state agencies.


“The biggest issue that’s happening right now is that each part of the system is checking its own box, and no one is looking at all of the pieces in the system together and saying, ‘Is this the right outcome to keep the community safe and to make sure that kids get the services they need to be their best selves?’” he said.


The General Assembly is set to reconvene Jan. 10, opening a wealth of possibility for new policies to readdress the issue. But Ferguson said that there should be a greater sense of “urgency” from the executive branch to intervene to ensure better coordination as kids move through the juvenile justice system.


Ferguson said that Maryland “used to do this better” under the now-defunct Office of Children, Youth and Families, which was responsible for coordinating services across agencies that work with children to reduce delinquency. It also tracked the ability to review cases against kids where the case was dismissed or the charges dropped.


The Office of Children, Youth and Families was absorbed into the Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services under former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. The Senate president said that was the end of the interagency coordination and case review.

Ferguson said that he has recognized in recent months that there is “no one responsible for the outcomes” within the juvenile justice system, and “that has to change.”


But he does think the lack of accountability is “fixable” with an executive order to create a new interagency coordination system from Moore.


“We’re not talking about thousands and thousands of kids,” Ferguson said. “We’re talking about a couple hundred kids — maybe — that really need the right services, and accountability, and follow-up, and follow-through, and tracking to really change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of people living in communities who don’t deserve to feel unsafe.”


Ferguson asserted that the direction that Maryland is moving in to ensure better outcomes for kids is the right one — much better than warehousing them in facilities and “forgetting about them.”


“That’s not the answer,” said the Senate president. “It won’t be the answer. It’s never the answer.”

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