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Gov. Moore, veto Maryland’s juvenile justice reform bill | GUEST COMMENTARY

Published April 9, 2024

By Alex R. Piquero and Heather Warnken

The Baltimore Sun

Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff

Last week, amid concerns about certain crimes increasing among young people, Maryland lawmakers passed significant legislation affecting the state’s juvenile justice system. This response — which will bring more kids into the juvenile legal system — will make no one safer, and it will exacerbate the system’s shameful, longstanding racial disparities. 

This is a sad moment in Maryland, and we need to talk about where we go from here.

Only two elements of House Bill 814 warrant Gov. Wes Moore’s signature. One codifies the Thrive Academy, a new program from the state’s Department of Juvenile Services that focuses on reducing gun violence among youth under its supervision who present the highest risk of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence. The other would create a permanent Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform and Emerging and Best Practices to study how the juvenile legal system is operating and make consensus-based recommendations for improvements based on facts and national best practices — rather than on anecdotes, outliers and media-driven anxieties, as is currently the case.

The rest of the bill reflects a disturbing and unjustified, nationwide trend of reactionary public safety policymaking. People are certainly entitled to their own opinions, and especially to any very real fears of crime that they may have based on their own experiences. But no one is entitled to their own facts regarding crime data and crime trends — no matter how often these alternatives are broadcast on television or show up in social media feeds. 

On this point the authoritative statistical evidence could not be clearer: Despite an already-receding spike in some violent offenses that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, most crimes committed by young people in Maryland, as in the rest of the nation, remain below pre-pandemic levels and very far from the peaks of the early 1990s. Moreover, of the crime rates that did rise between 2018 and 2020, arrest rates were higher among those in their 20s, not among those in their teens. 

For nearly two decades prior to the pandemic, crime and victimization rates among young people declined steadily, alongside similarly decreasing rates of incarceration. At the same time, research repeatedly showed that drawing kids deeper into the system, especially for nonviolent offenses, increased their chances of being arrested again on new charges. Evidence from rounds of research on youth decision-making also showed that their brains, especially the part that governs self-control, continue developing into the early-to-mid 20s. The U.S. Supreme Court pointed to this knowledge repeatedly when it issued decisions that upended draconian sentencing policies.

Despite this compelling evidence, however, nearly all the provisions of H.B. 814 will expand the net of incarceration. By making more kids eligible for detention, doubling probation times and lowering the threshold for technical violations — including, incredibly, making kids detention-eligible for being 15 minutes late to school — the legislation will see more kids end up incarcerated. 

It is similarly disappointing that in a state that claims the nation’s highest over-incarceration of its Black population, little attention has been paid to the likely racial disparities of this legislation. A lackluster racial impact study on a provision that will cause more 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds to be referred to the Department of Juvenile Services claimed there was no existing evidence on which to draw any conclusions. Yet, for three of the four charges that will apply to these children if the bill is signed into law, one could easily extrapolate the likelihood from data about the 13- to 17-year-olds already subject to these provisions. In 2023, more than nine out of 10 intakes for handgun violations and auto theft were children of color, as were 79% of intakes for deadly weapon charges.  

Like any system devised by human beings, Maryland’s juvenile justice system is imperfect; there will always be room for improvement. Unfortunately, as we are seeing today, making changes to this complex system when the problem is one of “perception” exacerbated by media narratives that highlight individual cases rather than overall trends can result in a process that prioritizes political solutions over public safety goals, equity or better outcomes for system-involved youth. 

Our legislative leaders were right to recognize that there is a permanent need for ways to make improvements to the juvenile legal system. But based on a reliable body of evidence spanning decades, only the eight brave legislators who voted “no” were right on this bill. It is too late to strip this legislation of its potentially harmful proposals, which do not align with evidence or best practices. However, it is not too late for the governor to veto this bill and instead take executive action on the creation of the two positive solutions. The governor has repeatedly committed to being data-driven and heart-led, and no one in Maryland deserves this more than our kids.  

Alex R. Piquero ( is a professor of sociology and criminology, and an arts and sciences distinguished scholar at the University of Miami. He is also the former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics within the United States Department of Justice (appointed by President Joe Biden). Heather Warnken ( is executive director at the University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Criminal Justice Reform, and a former fellow at the Office of Justice Programs, within the United States Department of Justice.  

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