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  • Angela Chen

Approaches to juvenile justice move backward, not forward in the Washington metropolitan area.

Pending legislation in Maryland and recently passed legislation in Washington D.C. move approaches to youth justice in the area backward instead of forwards. 

In Maryland, juvenile justice has been one of the largest issues in the current legislative session. The Maryland Senate and House both voted in favor of slightly different versions of a bipartisan juvenile justice bill that already has the support of Governor Wes Moore. Since there are minor differences between the two versions of the legislation, they must be reconciled and voted on again before the final version, approved by both the House and the Senate, can be signed by Governor Moore. 

Both the Maryland House and Senate bills would extend the maximum length of probation allowed for children to up to two years for misdemeanors and four years for felonies as well as permit children to be detained whilst awaiting trial if they were found responsible for an offense in a prior proceeding.  Similarly, the bills would mandate the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services to forward cases alleging certain crimes that they choose not to prosecute to the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office for review. The bills would also allow them to prosecute 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds if their charges involve weapons, guns, sexual assault, or animal abuse. Lowering the minimum age of prosecution marks a drastic change in direction for the Maryland legislature, as less than two years ago it passed legislation setting the minimum age for prosecution at 13 for most crimes. 

Advocates for youth justice reform criticize the legislation, arguing that the proposed changes mark a step backward after efforts made in recent years to limit the number of youth, particularly Black youth, involved in the Maryland criminal legal system. Maryland Public Defender, Natasha M. Dartigue, compared the legislation to “tough on crime” policies from the past. Rates of youth crime in Maryland have declined for the past decade, but recent coverage of high-profile incidents have focused constituents on the issue of youth crime and put pressure on lawmakers to act. 

In Washington D.C., Muriel Bowser signed the Secure DC omnibus crime bill into law in March. Amongst a number of provisions, the bill includes changes that increase the maximum amount of time a child can be detained until their proceeding. The legislation also makes it easier for judges to detain children charged with possession of a firearm or the commission of a dangerous or violent crime while armed. The bill is a continuation of the emergency legislation the D.C. Council passed during the summer of 2023, which created a rebuttable presumption of pre-trial detention for children charged with violent offenses. This presumption of detention put a strain on the D.C. juvenile legal system after the number of children detained pre-trial increased greatly due to the burden-shifting occurring in the courtroom. Even before the emergency legislation was passed, the Youth Services Center (YSC), where children in D.C. are detained while awaiting trial, was struggling with understaffing. The lack of adequate staffing resulted in frequent lockdowns, violations of YSC’s own suicide prevention policy, and limited access to education for the children detained there.  

While Virginia is not currently considering juvenile justice legislation, the Commonwealth is struggling with dramatic increases in the number of youth detained due to policy changes and trends in the prosecution of youth. In northern Virginia, the number of children detained at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center has vastly increased in the past couple of years. The Director of the City of Alexandria’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Service Unit, Mike Mackey, reports that the center reached its maximum capacity of 46 children in the last year. Over the past year, cases where children were eligible for detention increased by 66% in Alexandria and 100% in Arlington. Mackey also shared with the Alexandria City Council that the detention center’s average daily population was 12 in 2020 and nine in 2022, but has now increased to 26.  In July 2023, Virginia’s Board of Juvenile Justice changed its guidelines to increase the minimum length of stay in the state's only juvenile correctional center for several offenses. 

The increase in the number of children detained is causing one city in Virginia–– Portsmouth––to consider housing children in the basement of Portsmouth City Jail. Portsmouth no longer has a dedicated building to house detained children, so deputies are traveling as far as Tennessee to place detained Virginian youth. Interim City Manager Mimi Terry noted to the Portsmouth City Council that part of why children are being housed so far away from their homes is due to policy changes in the D.J.J. For example, the D.J.J. implemented an “override” that forces juvenile probation officers to recommend secured detention for children arrested on charges involving firearms. 

The United States House Oversight Committee introduced its own legislation concerning juvenile crime in D.C. The D.C. CRIMES (Criminal Reforms to Immediately Make Everyone Safe) Act seeks to lower the maximum age for youth offender status in D.C. from 24 to 18, prohibit the D.C. City Council from passing changes to existing criminal liability sentences, and mandate the D.C. Attorney General’s Office to create a website displaying weekly statistics on juvenile crime in D.C. The bill marks another instance in recent years of the federal government trying to gain control over D.C.’s criminal law. 

Throughout the DMV region, detention rates for children are increasing and state legislatures are proposing and passing legislation that marks a step backward for youth justice reform. It is important to note that these changes will disproportionately impact Black youth in the DMV area, a point that many advocates have already been making to lawmakers. Black children are already overrepresented in the legal system in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia, and a return to “tough on crime” approaches to juvenile justice will only further exacerbate these racial disparities. 


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