Maryland state lawmakers to prioritize juvenile justice legislation in 2022

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Advocates and two state lawmakers announced Thursday that they plan to prioritize bills during the 2022 legislative session that would bar police from questioning kids without their parents’ knowledge and reform the juvenile court system.

“We’ve passed a lot of legislation to protect children,” Sen. Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore City) said. “We’ve passed anti-bullying legislation, we’ve gotten legislators pushing for ending child marriage, but the same children they ostensibly want to protect from bullies and from marriage are the same children they allow to be automatically prosecuted as adults and sent to prison for life.”

At a news conference held at Lawyer’s Mall on Thursday morning, Carter and Del. J. Sandra Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel) announced that they plan to reintroduce the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, which would require law enforcement to notify a child’s legal guardian before they are questioned in custody.

The pair co-sponsored the legislation during the 2021 regular session. It passed out of the House chamber but died when it reached the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Both hope it will fare better in 2022.

“It passed out of the House with a veto-proof majority [in 2021],” Bartlett said. “We need to get it out on the floor of the Senate. If there is a debate to be had, let’s have it, but let’s get this bill passed because we must protect our children.”

In addition to the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, Carter and Bartlett are urging passage of legislation based on recommendations of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, which would create more diversion opportunities through the Department of Juvenile Services, limit probation terms for children convicted of crimes, ban incarceration for kids who violate the technical terms of their probation or commit misdemeanor crimes and establish a minimum age that children can be tried for crimes in adult court.

Under current law, there is no presumption of incapacity, or presumption of infancy, for children over the age of seven.

“I have stood next to a child in court so small that the [child-sized] handcuffs they have, they had to hold their hands over their head because if they put their hands down the handcuffs would fall off and they were afraid they would get in trouble for letting them fall,” Juvenile Public Defender Jenny Egan said. “We should not be sending elementary school children into cages for childish misbehavior.”

Carter and Bartlett will also sponsor a bill in 2022 that would end the practice of automatically prosecuting kids in adult court for certain crimes.

There are 33 eligible charges that can send a minor to adult court. Egan said that “the majority” of those cases are then waived back down to juvenile court or dropped altogether.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery) both came out in favor of ending the requirement that kids be charged in adult court earlier this year.

According to Josh Rovner, a senior advocacy associate for The Sentencing Project, Maryland is second only to Alabama on the rate of children it sends to adult court on a per-capita basis, and only Florida sends more kids to adult court “by count,” he said.

“Florida has three times as many teenagers as this state does,” Rovner said Thursday. “That’s not a neighborhood that we like to find ourselves in; that’s not who we like to compare ourselves to here in Maryland.”

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