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Juvenile delinquency court is no place for very young children, Maryland Supreme Court rules

September 19, 2023

Children should be treated as children. This principle is at the heart of recent juvenile justice reforms in Maryland, including a provision in the 2022 Juvenile Justice Reform Act (JJRA) that raises the minimum age at which a child can be sent to juvenile delinquency court to 13 years old. But in the case In re MP, a juvenile court held that the law did not apply to a child who was 12 when he allegedly committed a delinquent act because the 2022 law was not in effect at the time. On appeal in the Maryland Supreme Court, the Public Justice Center and allies filed an amicus brief in July arguing that the law does apply retroactively and explaining how subjecting young children to the juvenile justice system is harmful, developmentally inappropriate, and perpetuates racial and gender disparities. On September 8, the Maryland Supreme Court issued an order directing the juvenile court immediately to dismiss MP’s delinquency proceeding on grounds of lack of jurisdiction, applying the JJRA retroactively as MP and the PJC had requested.

The JJRA has roots in the Juvenile Justice Reform Council (JRRC), which the Maryland General Assembly established in 2019 to recommend changes to the state’s juvenile justice system. The JRRC published its final report in January 2021 and, among its conclusions, recommended that the legislature set a minimum age at which children can be treated as delinquent in juvenile court. This reform aimed to prevent very young children from contact with the system. In April 2022, the General Assembly adopted many of the JJRC’s recommendations in the JJRA, including the provision to raise the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 13, with limited exceptions for certain violent alleged delinquent acts. The legislature specified that the JJRA became effective on June 1, 2022.

The amicus brief in support of MP argued that the juvenile court erred when it ruled that, because the JJRA was not in effect at the time of the alleged behavior, MP can be charged in juvenile court. Written by 2022-2023 Murnaghan Fellow Hayley Hahn, the brief urged that because it is a remedial provision, it applies retroactively. In support of this conclusion, the brief highlighted the JRRC’s findings that the juvenile justice system is a developmentally inappropriate response to alleged misbehavior by young children. Young children can behave impulsively but do not have the same understanding and culpability as adults. Thus, other supportive services are better equipped to address children’s behavior than the punitive delinquency court system. The brief argued that states across the country are increasingly recognizing this and setting a minimum age when kids can face the label of delinquent. The brief also described the harms of subjecting young children to the system, including trauma, increased risk of being subject to violence while in custody, slower adolescent development, and mental health challenges. Finally, the brief described racial and gender disparities in the juvenile system. While white children have the leeway to be impulsive, the same behavior in Black children is too often seen as criminal, with the authorities more likely to treat them like they were adults and lock them up. Law enforcement officials also disproportionately detain girls, including for offenses like violating probation or acts related to trying to escape unsafe conditions at home, and the punishment is often worse if they violate heteronormative standards of appearance or behavior.

In a September ruling, the Maryland Supreme Court agreed that the juvenile system is no place for young children. The high court applied the JJRA retroactively as MP and the PJC had requested and ordered the juvenile court to dismiss MP’s delinquency proceeding because the juvenile court does not have jurisdiction over children younger than 13. The Court’s opinion supporting the order will be issued at a later date. Countless other children in Maryland will have their cases dismissed because of this ruling.

Thank you to the organizations that joined the brief, including the ACLU of Maryland, the Baltimore Action Legal Team, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Gault Center, and the Juvenile Law Center. Many thanks also to PJC paralegal Angelea Aldana Dwyer and Administrative Coordinator Becky Reynolds for their assistance with the brief.