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WMAR-2 News: For the 13th time, bill to end auto-charging dies in Annapolis

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Posted: 2:26 PM, Mar 22, 2023 Updated: 2:37 PM, Mar 22, 2023

By: Amanda Engel

WMAR-2 News

Photo by: WMAR-2 News

Despite being cross-filed, and supported by the new Governor,the Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act, did not get a vote before crossover day. The bill would start anyone arrested under the age of 18 in juvenile court when charged with a crime. Currently, kids as young as 13 will automatically be charged in adult court for 33 different offenses. Neither the House's Judiciary Committee nor the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee put the bill on a voting list. Proponents who testified in favor of the bill included groups like The Sentencing Project, Bridge Maryland, the Office of the Public Defender, Human Rights for Kids, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, the Maryland Catholic Conference and Jews United for Justice. Those opposed, who presented unfavorable testimony during the Judicial Proceedings Committee included Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, the Maryland State's Attorneys Association and other employees from other State's Attorneys jurisdictions. Senator Jill Carter of Baltimore City, the sponsor of the Senate version, says she's been trying to get this passed for 13 years.

"The bottom line is that all that we wanted to do with the YES Act is start the children in the juvenile system, let the state tell the court why they need to go up to the adult let the court decide. And it seems like it shouldn't be that hard of a thing to do here in Maryland, but it's been a ridiculous struggle," says Carter.

Governor Moore's communications team has confirmed to WMAR-2 News that he supports the bill.

We also reached out to the Office of the Attorney General, newly elected Anthony Brown. His press office gave us the below statement.

"We do support the goals of the YES Act, including reducing the number of juveniles who are tried in adult court."

The Chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, Senator Will Smith, said in an op-ed in September of 2021, "We can and should end the process of automatically charging our youth as if they were adults."

However, he never brought the bill to a vote.

We reached out to Sen. Smith on the lack of a vote, but have yet to hear back from him. Senate President Ferguson answered questions about the bill on Friday, March 17th, as crossover day approached.

"This is an important issue and very hard conversation," said Sen. Ferguson, who represents a district in Baltimore City.

"I think it's especially important to be mindful of some of the really horrific tragedies that we've seen in the Baltimore region," he continued.

"We are not in a good place when it comes to really making sure that some of our most impacted, juvenile-young people are changing their behaviors, and that they are - that we are providing the interventions to shift how they engage in the world, and the level of firearm violence that we are seeing amongst juveniles is totally unacceptable. I don't know that this is a particular answer either way, the one challenge I will say is that in a number of these cases we have seen victims or perpetrators who have been a part of the juvenile services system. And what I have continuously been frustrated by is - it is clear to me, particularly as we've seen a rise in really serious.. crimes by young people is that we're not seeing the level of success of the services at the Department of Juvenile Justice (sic.) [Services] that any of us should be satisfied with and so it is difficult to say that we should be placing a greater burden on the Juvenile system before we know whether or not the services that they already control are sufficient."

Senator Ferguson added that the juvenile system only has jurisdiction until someone turns 21."If a 17 year old is found to be involved under the juvenile system and that individual.. turns 21, the system is done," he said. "There's no re-thought, it's just an end and so I think we have to have a real conversation about what is it - what is the impact of that moving forward and should we.. if we are going to change the direct file are we also going to look at the 21 year old restrictions."

Josh Rovner, the Director of Youth Justice at the Sentencing Project, who testified in favor of the bill, gave us the following statement on the Senate President's comments: "The Senate President's comments are nonsense and betray his abject ignorance of what the proposed legislation would do. Under this bill, the most serious cases would still be moved to adult court where young people could receive lengthy sentences. Period."

We'd also spoken to two young men who were directly impacted by the current law. Oscar was arrested and charged as an adult when he was 17. He didn't deny his charges, but between his waiver hearing and awaiting placement, he waited more than a year before he could start his placement program at the Victor Cullen facility. He completed the program requirements in four and half months. Oscar's lawyer, public defender Brian Levy sent us the following statement on the stalling of the bill.

"It remains unproductive, inefficient, and intolerable that Maryland continues to automatically charge youth as adults. Oscar's case perfectly illustrates that when we provide young offenders with treatment and services through the juvenile, rather than the criminal legal system, that they and society as a whole are better off. Oscar and the Office of the Public Defender are deeply saddened that the State legislature will not pass the YES Act. Maryland's Youth deserve better." The other young man who spoke to us for that story was Dez. His mother, Serene sent us a statement following the bill's stall.

"After learning the bill isn't passing again for the 13th time[,] as a resident of Baltimore County, I'm concerned that our lawmakers can't see how the YES Act helps us all. As a parent of a child who was charged as an adult and housed in the wors[t] way, I am mortified. The YES Act isn't asking for the juvenile not to be charged as an adult at all, yet just asking to allow them to start in the juvenile court and be treated as children. These are the same children the law says are too young to vote, participate in jury duty, or purchase alcohol, but are forced to make adult-like decisions. When will this become a priority? I guess when it hits closer to their homes?"

Dez's lawyer, Michelle Kim, with the Office of the Public Defender also released a statement.

"My client is one of many children in Maryland who, at this minute, are sitting alone in cells in adult jails and are being told yet again that the people tasked with their care have deemed their lives not a priority, who dismiss their suffering as exaggerated, and who refuse to remedy Maryland’s ignoble history of incarcerating Black youth."

Meanwhile, the Office of the Public Defender, as an agency sent us the following statement.

"Maryland has the highest rate of incarcerating Black men in the country --and it begins with policies that push children into the adult criminal system. Key stakeholders, including the Attorney General, the Governor's Office, and the Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services came together with my office to support this basic reform, in recognition that children should be treated as children. Maryland's automatic charging of children as adults is an outlier compared with other states, and the General Assembly's failure to advance the YES Act is an abomination and keeps our state lagging in basic human rights measures." We've reached out for follow up from Senate President Ferguson's office, and have not yet heard back.

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