NewsIn Focus


Human Rights For Kids calls out Maryland's record of incarcerating children

Posted: 2:11 PM, May 12, 2023
Updated: 2023-09-12 18:17:21-04
Maryland Juvenile Justice Reform Legislation

More than 6 percent of the people incarcerated in Maryland, are in prison for crimes committed when they were kids, putting our state in the top five when it comes to putting children behind bars.

Maryland ranks fourth highest in the nation for that category. It is behind only Louisiana, Wisconsin and South Carolina. The next three states on the list are Missouri, Mississippi and Iowa.

The organization Human Rights For Kids this week released a new report, titled "Crimes Against Humanity: The Mass Incarceration of Children in the U.S.," attempting to figure out what has happened to the hundreds of thousands of kids that were charged in adult courts across the United States.

Of the 1,132 incarcerated individuals in Maryland where the crime was committed as a child, 224 of them (or 19.79%) are serving life sentences.

"What this report found is that Maryland is an outlier for how harshly treats its young people, we see that it's the fourth highest and the number of kids who are sentenced and spending time in prisons as a percentage," says Josh Rovner, the Director of Youth Justice at the Sentencing Project.

Maryland also ranks fourth highest in the percentage of children of color in this prison population. Of those incarcerated for crimes committed as children, 90.46% of them are people of color.

Maryland ranks only behind California, Rhode Island and Illinois.

81.27% of that population is Black. For comparison, Black Marylanders make up 32% of the overall state population.

Just 9.54% of the prison population we're focusing on is white, as compared to the overall state population, of which white people make up 55.4%.

The average sentence for kids charged as adults in Maryland is more than 25 years. The longest sentence being served by a member of this population is 236 years.

"This report investigates... the mass incarceration of children as adults which is now one of the largest government-sanctioned human rights abuses against children in the world today."

- Crimes Against Humanity: The Mass Incarceration of Children in the U.S.; Human Rights for Kids report

The report says that the number of kids being prosecuted in adult court has fallen since the late 2000s, from about 200,000 anually to around 53,000 a year.

"Perhaps there is no greater indictment under international law," reads the report, "then [sic.] the ease in which it is comfortable discarding the human rights - and lives - of vulnerable children it was obligated to protect."

According to Human Rights for Kids, more than 32,000 individuals are in U.S. prisons for crimes that were committed when they were under 18.

"That makes up about 3% of the total prison population in the U.S. and we figured that the number of people that are currently incarcerated under this criteria in America is actually larger than the prison populations in most other countries," says Emily Virgin, the Human Rights For Kids' Director of Advocacy & Government Relations.

Virgin spoke with us following the release of the Crimes Against Humanity report.

"This report really fills the gap in the research and the data that we have in the criminal justice reform field, specifically, dealing with juvenile justice," she says. "We really didn't have an idea of how many kids were being charged and convicted and imprisoned in the adult system."

Virgin actually visited Annapolis during this year's legislative session, to testify on behalf of the organization in favor of a bill she says would help improve Maryland's record of incarcerating kids as adults.

The bill, SB93/HB96, also known as the Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act, was introduced on the Senate side by Senator Jill Carter.

Annapolis Maryland State House

If passed, the bill would have automatically started anyone under 18 charged with a crime in the juvenile system, while leaving prosecutors the opportunity to waive more serious cases up to the adult system.

RELATED: A Tale of Two Teens

Several State's Attorneys were against the YES Act, believing that it would place too high a burden on prosecutors to put kids charged with what they characterize as 'heinous crimes' back into the adult system.

Under current Maryland law, there are 33 offenses that will send kids as young as 13 directly to adult court. These include charges ranging from murder to possession of a firearm.

WMAR-2 News covered the attempt to pass this bill, and its failure, extensively.

"I hope that Maryland lawmakers see this [report] as a call to action and that they recognize that children in Maryland are not any worse or more dangerous than children in other states," says Virgin.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who says that his office currently has cases against 38 defendants who are charged as adults, feels the report "neglect[s] the victims."

"What I would say to the folks that have drafted that report, what exactly do you expect me to do with these people? My duty is to keep the public as safe as possible," he says.

Shellenberger testified against the YES Act during the bill hearings, but says he's advocated for additional resources and funding to the Department of Juvenile Services.

"What I tell the legislature is please let Juvenile Services help the 13 year old who stole from the store or the 14 year old who broke into a shed. I would love for you to put the services into those people and their families so that I don't have to see them when they're 17 and I have to sit next to a family whose loved one was killed."

Advocates for the reform say, the data tells a different story.

"When kids are charged as adults, not only does it have worse outcomes for those kids, they're much more likely to reoffend, but it has worse outcomes," says Rovner, who also testified in favor of the SB93/HB96 during the legislative session. "For all of us, it is worse for public safety to send young people to the adult system."

The bill died in Senator Will Smith's Judicial Proceedings committee. He didn't bring the bill up for a vote, despite his public statement in support of the bill.

Senate President Bill Ferguson made public statements about the bill during the legislative session, though not fully convinced that this legislative session was the right time for this move.

"We are not in a good place when it comes to really making sure that some of our most impacted, juvenile-young people are changing their behaviors, and that they are - that we are providing the interventions to shift how they engage in the world, and the level of firearm violence that we are seeing amongst juveniles is totally unacceptable," Senator Ferguson said on March 17th, 2023.

We reached out to both Sens. Ferguson and Smith and neither had further comment at this time.

We also reached out to Governor Wes Moore, to get his response to both the report and if he would prioritize a bill like the YES Act next session.

"Governor Moore is committed to making substantive reform within the juvenile justice system in Maryland to better serve youth involved in the system and to ensure that our communities remain safe.

Governor Moore has made it very clear from day one that the administration is committed to addressing these issues directly through both changes at the Department of Juvenile Services and within the community through strong education funding, community resources, and a revolutionary service year program for graduating high school seniors." - Response from Gov. Moore's office on May 11, 2023.

"Public safety concerns are real, and people deserve to feel safe in their own neighborhoods in their own homes and we never want to dismiss that," Virgin says. "But what I would say is that these things are happening under the current system and so what that tells us is that the current system isn't working as lawmakers would want it to work, because these things are still happening."