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Fight continues to stop charging kids as adults in court

Juvenile justice reform bills would end the practice of direct-file in Maryland
Juvenile Justice Reform Committee Meeting.jpg
Posted at 3:35 PM, Jan 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 09:36:05-05

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Senator Jill Carter has been working on getting this bill passed for a decade.

"I've been pushing to end what's called direct file, which is the automatic charging of children as adults in Maryland, not just for the worst crimes, but actually 33 offenses that the statute statutorily enumerated," Sen. Carter explained back in December.

Senate Bill 165 removes the requirement that kids be charged in adult court for these offenses.

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Instead, these children would be charged in the juvenile system.

Jenny Egan works at the Office of the Public Defender, defending kids.

"There's no evidence in the record to show that charging kids as adults makes our communities safer, or improves outcomes for young people," Egan told us following a meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council in September.

The Council was tasked with studying this issue for the state legislature and has voted to recommend this legislation.

RELATED: Ending charging kids as adults: Juvenile Justice Reform Council holds heated discussion over proposal

On Thursday, January 27, the Council held a briefing for the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing SB165 and Senate Bill 53, the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act.

The Committee met for the briefing and then immediately transitioned into a hearing, where around 70 witnesses shared a mix of passionate personal testimony, scientific research and moral arguments for why these bills should pass.

Keisha Hogan told her story during the briefing portion. Her son entered the criminal justice system at 13 and was charged as an adult.

"I am the mother of a child.. who was sentenced to 891 days for his first offense and he had never prior to this been in trouble by the police," she told the Committee, getting emotional at times.

Her son, now 21, is again in prison. He "re-offended" after his experience in the adult system. She added that he is now suffers from addiction.

"It still pierces my soul," Hogan says, adding, "it decimated my family."

Professor Kristin Henning, a law professor and the Director of the Georgetown Law School's Juvenile Justice Initiative, spoke about the issue from a scientific perspective.

"Most of you are aware that the human brain does not fully form until the early 20s," she told the committee during the briefing.

She added that as kids' brains develop, they are likely to outgrow the criminal behaviors, but that sending kids to adult prisons can stop that growth.

"Punitive responses to adolescent crime interrupts the possibility of that natural desistance from crime," Henning said.

After Senators asked some questions of the panelists, the committee moved to a hearing on the two bills.

The overwhelming majority of testimony was in favor of the two pieces of legislation.

Lawmakers heard from representatives of several organizations, including The Sentencing Project, Human Rights For Kids, the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, CAIR, the ACLU, and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.

Also in favor of these bills were former judges, defense attorneys, religious activists, doctors, mental health advocates, a retired detective at the Baltimore Police Department and people who have been directly impacted by this.

There were a total of 4 individuals who testified against either bill, with only 2 testifying against SB165, the bill that would end direct file.

These included states attorneys, a police officer and a representative of the Charles County Sheriff's Office.

While the Judicial Proceedings Committee scheduled a voting session for the following day, Friday, January 28, neither of these bills was on that agenda.

The bills still need a vote in the Committee before moving on to the Senate floor.