• Breann Bell

How HB 459 will update Maryland’s outdated juvenile legal system


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Maryland has been making changes to its juvenile legislation, and the state most recently passed the Juvenile Restoration Act (JRA), which took effect in Oct. 2021. The JRA outlaws sentencing to life without the possibility of parole children who have been tried as adults. Further, it allows many individuals to submit a motion to the court for a sentence modification. The JRA is providing an avenue to rectify harsh sentences previously given to juveniles through these resentencing proceedings, which can result in early release.


Now, Maryland is considering new legislation–House Bill 459 (HB 459)–that will further impact the juvenile legal system. Several states have reduced juveniles’ involvement with the criminal and juvenile systems in recent years, and HB 459 proposes several methods by which to avoid or minimize juveniles’ contact with the criminal legal system without significant issues, such as threats to public safety. The legislation, if passed, will: (1) set a minimum age for the juvenile courts’ jurisdiction; (2) provide more opportunities for diversion through the informal adjudication process; (3) set limitations to the length of probation juveniles can receive; and (4) put in place safeguards that limit the courts’ ability to place a juvenile in pre-adjudication detention.


Minimum Age

Unlike several states, Maryland does not set a minimum age for the juvenile courts to have jurisdiction. HB 459’s minimum age requirement will, in effect, limit the courts’ ability to consider charges brought against many younger children. This coincides with the current understanding that younger individuals have not fully developed cognitively. Furthermore, setting a minimum age would put Maryland on par with other states and international trends that set the minimum age at around twelve years.


Diversion

HB 459 also proposes legislation that would simplify the informal adjudication process. The bill would reduce the involvement of the State’s Attorney Office and possible victims, and it would mandate the use of informal adjudication in certain circumstances, such as for minors who have never been previously adjudicated nor had an informal adjudication. This will aid in diverting many youth from the juvenile system and in mitigating the negative consequences associated with the adjudication process.


Detention

Pre-adjudication detention can negatively affect young individuals, even when the detention is limited to a short period, and it should only be used in limited circumstances. HB 459 sets out safeguards to ensure that pre-adjudication detention is used only when necessary and that courts conducts frequent reviews once pre-adjudication detention is ordered. The legislation also restricts the use of pre-adjudication detention for misdemeanor offenses where a firearm was not used. This limits the use of pre-adjudication detention for minor offenses that are not inherently dangerous. The Sentencing Project noted Black youth were 6.3 times more likely to be placed in detention than their white peers in 2019. This will minimize disparities throughout the juvenile system and limit unnecessary periods of detention.


Probation

Currently, Maryland does not set statutory limits for the term of a juvenile’s probation. HB 459 places restrictions on the probation term imposed on a juvenile, such as setting the maximum term of probation that a juvenile can receive at an initial hearing. Further, it outlines when the probation term can be extended beyond the initial limit and to what extent it can be extended. Additionally, the legislation will provide that youth cannot be placed in detention for technical violations of probation, thereby reducing youths’ contact with detention facilities.


A New Era in Juvenile Reform

After enacting the Juvenile Restoration Act, proposed House Bill 459 demonstrates the impact that evidence-based research and studies can have on the implementation of change within the system. The amendments proposed in the legislation are closely related to several of the 20 recommendations made by the Juvenile Justice Reform Council (JJC); other recommendations regard issues such as out-of-home treatment programs and youth charged as adults. As the legislation further proposes a requirement for annual reporting on issues such as mental health, rehabilitation and child welfare, it is likely that more of the JJC’s recommendations will also gain traction if passed.

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