Home News Center Focusing on racial justice and systemic reform helped advocates raise the minimum age in Maryland.

Focusing on racial justice and systemic reform helped advocates raise the minimum age in Maryland.

July 28, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of woman hugging African American boy as they look ahead in a protest crowd

Earlier this year the state of Maryland passed a major youth justice reform
bill thanks to the hard work of advocates who comprised the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition, including NJJN member the Association of the Public Defender of Maryland (APDM). The legislation included several major changes to Maryland’s youth legal system, including raising the minimum age of youth jurisdiction to 13 for most cases. The bill also sets probation caps for misdemeanor offenses and requires higher standards to continue probation. Further, the legislation bans detention, commitment and incarceration for the vast majority of misdemeanors and eliminates key barriers for young people to access diversion programs.   

Efforts to raise the minimum age of youth prosecution in Maryland follows the nationwide youth justice movement to raise the minimum age in all states. The move to raise the minimum age of youth jurisdiction to 13 makes Maryland one of the few states close to the United Nation’s recommended minimum age of 14. Twenty-four states in the U.S. have no minimum age for prosecuting children, leaving children as young as four, five and six at risk of arrest and entanglement in the youth legal system. Research consistently shows prosecuting children leaves long-lasting psychological damage and increases the chances that they will remain ensnared in the legal system.   

“Our ability to raise the minimum age to 13 for the vast majority of crimes is going to be the most monumental aspect of this legislation,” says Jenny Egan, Chief Attorney for the Juvenile Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender. As Egan notes, the argument for raising the minimum age was not the most difficult aspect of getting the bill passed. Pushback came from those worried about implementation, namely how youth were going to receive the help that they needed without going through the youth legal system. To combat this opposition, it was important to educate legislators on the harm to children caused by court involvement and the need to create pathways to services that don’t involve handcuffs.   

“The perception is that the only system that responds quickly to children in need is the juvenile justice system. There is the mindset that if we don’t arrest kids, we won’t be able to get them any help. It was especially important to show that as many services that the Department of Juvenile Services can connect a child to, the process of labeling a child as criminal is even more harmful,” Egan says. “We had to have explicit conversations about racial justice and what it means to tell a 10-year-old that the only way we can help him is by putting him in handcuffs.”   

Having broader conversations about the foundations of the youth justice system was helpful in advancing legislation and moving the state’s nonprofit sector in a more progressive direction. “Pushing to have conversations explicitly about racial justice helped move our state’s predominantly white nonprofit industry in a more thoughtful direction about youth justice. We also went deeper into understanding the way children develop; not just children are different than adults, but that these are the times of a child’s life when they are forming their identity and forming the ways that they will engage with their neighbors and communities forever. Do we want to tell these kids that they are our neighbors, or do you want to tell them that they are only worthy of being ostracized? Emphasizing the civic engagement angle had a lot of resonance in 2022.”   

Lessons Learned  
An important legacy from this year’s advocacy efforts in Maryland is the coalescing of the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition as well as bringing child-serving organizations like PTAs and progressive teachers into the youth justice advocacy community. Working in wide coalition to pass the youth justice reform bill elevated key lessons, such as:   

  • Ensuring everyone is on the same page as early as possible  
  • Implementing messaging and best practices training early on  
  • Having holistic and systemic conversations within the coalition
  • Engaging in power mapping and finding allies on both sides of the aisle  

Learn more about the Association of the Public Defender of Maryland (APDM) and read about Maryland’s youth justice bill. 

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