The Masai people of Kenya have a traditional greeting. Rather than asking how each other is doing, they ask “and how are the children?” Implicit in this greeting is a recognition that we as a community are nothing if we do not protect the next generation. Indeed, one can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats its youth. If Maryland’s approach to juvenile justice is any indication, our children still lack critical protections under the law.

While we in the General Assembly overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto on a bipartisan basis last year to end life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children, Maryland still clings to approaches to juvenile justice that fail to keep all our kids safe. We must adopt models that provide constructive solutions to the problems plaguing our justice system, and that improve outcomes for our children.

Our state’s criminal laws are based on the premise that juveniles accused of crimes deserve and should be afforded certain protections beyond those afforded to adults. While current law allows police in most instances to lie about evidence during an interrogation to pressure the accused into confessing to a crime, we know that false confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. That is why I have introduced HB1374 providing protection for juveniles accused of crimes.

If passed, H.B. 1374 would create a rebuttable presumption that a statement made by a minor during a custodial interrogation is involuntary and is inadmissible in a juvenile or criminal proceeding where the law enforcement officer uses knowingly false information to elicit the information. I believe that Maryland should join states like Illinois and Oregon in curbing the use of deceptive tactics in the interrogation of juveniles.  As the infamous case of the Exonerated Five demonstrates, one need not look too far to understand the consequences of false confessions made by juveniles secured by deceptive police interrogation tactics are too high for us to bear. 

Recently, heartbreaking footage surfaced online showing two Montgomery County police officers terrorizing and handcuffing a 5-year-old Black boy. While shocking, the video was hardly surprising. According to our state’s Department of Education, nearly 70% of school-based arrests are for minor infractions such as disruption, disrespect, trespassing, and fighting. Moreover, while Black students account for only one-third of enrollment in Maryland public schools, they make up over half of all its arrests (Source: https://marylandpublicschools.org/stateboard/Documents/2020/0623/MarylandPublicSchoolsArrestData20182019.pdf). As legislators we have a responsibility to make decisions rooted in data. And the data tells us that the School Resource Officer (SRO) model in Maryland is  seriously flawed. Our kids deserve an affirming educational experience; not cops. Our kids need counselors, behavior specialists, nurses and restorative justice practitioners, not handcuffs.

Maintaining the status quo perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline, siphoning Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and students with disabilities from the classroom to the jailhouse. It doesn’t have to be like this, particularly where one can imagine and implement more effective alternatives. The Police-Free Schools Act, legislation I’ve previously introduced, would end the damaging and ineffective school police model by prohibiting school districts state-wide from contracting with police departments to station officers in schools. On a local level, the Montgomery County Council recently voted to remove SROs from Montgomery County Public Schools. Moreover, in my district, MCPS parents have stepped up to create “Dads on Duty,” a community initiative, run by fathers who patrol school halls, encourage our kids, and help keep school grounds safe. These two examples demonstrate what the possibilities can be where imagination meets will.

Maryland has an opportunity to lead the rest of the country when it comes to juvenile justice reform, particularly on these two important fronts. If we were to be asked right now, “And how are the children?”, I’m not sure we’d be able to confidently respond because Maryland is falling shamefully short, and the state of our children is dire.

Democrat Gabriel Acevero (gabriel.acevero@house.state.md.us) represents Montgomery County’s 39th District in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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