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WYPR: With juvenile justice bill signed, Maryland Senate committee leader wants fewer teens charged as adults

Published May 17, 2024

By Rachel Baye

WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

Ulysses Muños, The Baltimore Banner

One of the bills Gov. Wes Moore signed Thursday makes several changes to the state’s juvenile justice system. The head of the state Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee says those changes were a necessary first step toward building the political will for what he hopes to do next year: reduce how many teens Maryland charges as adults.

Maryland law has long required teens charged with any one of more than 30 different crimes to be placed in adult court. Each year the state automatically charges in adult court an average of roughly 700 cases involving juvenile defendants. Maryland charges more youth as adults than almost any other state, according to data from The Sentencing Project.

Sen. Will Smith, a Democrat representing part of Montgomery County, said he hopes to change that by shrinking the list of crimes that land kids in adult court. Under his proposal, many teens would start their cases in juvenile court instead. Then a judge could decide to move individual cases to adult court.

“I'm going to have briefings at the beginning of next session on this issue, so that people have an opportunity to take a deep dive and understand the intricacies of it,” Smith said, “because I do think it is actually a very important reform that will ultimately lead to better outcomes for youths engaged in the juvenile justice system.”

Under current law, children younger than 16 who are accused of first-degree murder or rape are automatically charged in adult court. So, too, are teens who are at least 16 years old who are accused of robbery, first-degree assault, kidnapping or misdemeanor gun possession. Smith’s proposal would start all of those cases in the juvenile court.

However, his bill would continue to automatically charge some teens as adults, including those at least 16 years old who are accused of carjacking or first- or second-degree rape or murder.

Smith said the reforms that Moore signed into law Thursday create more trust in the juvenile justice system among lawmakers, a necessary step to create the political will to pass additional changes affecting teens charged as adults.

Yet, he said, there still likely isn’t the political will to start all juvenile cases in the juvenile court, even if he personally believes it would be the best policy.

Starting cases involving juvenile defendants in the juvenile court yields “the better outcome for everybody, most importantly, the youth that are involved,” Smith said. “We just haven't had the political will and environment to get there yet.”

Smith said his proposal stems from conversations with prosecutors, public defenders and other stakeholders. He said he is further motivated by an investigation by WYPR and APM Reports into the reasons judges give when retaining teens in adult court.

The investigation found that some judges are using what juvenile justice advocates say are arbitrary and inconsistent reasons to keep teenagers charged with serious crimes in adult court. For example, a Baltimore City judge said a teenager’s large size was an argument to keep him in the adult system, and a Baltimore County judge said a defendant found to pose a “low to moderate risk of reoffending” should stay in the adult court largely because he missed a lot of school.

“I don't see how you read something like that and, in the limited time that we have in office, that you're satisfied with doing nothing about it,” Smith said.

For years, Maryland prosecutors have opposed similar changes. The Maryland State’s Attorneys Association referred questions about Smith’s proposal to Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

Shellenberger was skeptical that prosecutors would agree to anything close to what Smith has suggested. He said he is “always willing to discuss” the list of crimes that land teens in adult court.

“But when you start looking at the list, and you see, you know, murder, rape, carjacking, kidnapping, and you start talking and naming each of their crimes, it really gets more and more difficult to to figure out which ones can come out of that list,” he said.

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