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Youth Advocates Push MD Bill to Divert Kids from Jail

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Studies show early diversion programs help keep young people out of the criminal justice system. (Adobe Stock)
Studies show early diversion programs help keep young people out of the criminal justice system. (Adobe Stock)
 By Diane Bernard - Producer, Contact
April 9, 2021

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - As many states consider policing reforms, juvenile-justice groups in Maryland are pushing lawmakers to pass a bill to give police officers an alternate approach to arresting young people.

House Bill 1187 would divert kids under age 13 from entering the criminal justice system, allowing officers to not charge them with misdemeanor or nonviolent felony crimes.

Betsy Tolentino - assistant secretary of community operations at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services - said instead, young people and their families would be redirected to community-based programs to treat any behavioral problems.

She said diversion helps lower the chance of kids being arrested again.

"For the young people that we can just sort of address them the minute they come to our attention," said Tolentino, "with maybe some behavioral health services, drug treatment - and keep them from having to go through that formal process. Then we may stop the cycle of offending right away, and provide the supports they need to be successful in their communities."

The Governor's Juvenile Justice Reform Council recommended House Bill 1187 in its final report. The bill passed the Maryland House in a 95-to-41 vote and is now in the state Senate.

Tolentino said the Reform Council included public defenders, folks from Juvenile Services, and national experts in the criminal-justice system. After researching juvenile behavior, she noted they concluded, for low-level offenses, the harm of restrictive detention outweighs any benefits.

"So, for those young people who may be engaged in misdemeanor-type offenses, there's lots of other things we can do in the community," said Tolentino. "We can use electronic monitoring, we can do pretrial supervision, or other interventions that keep the young person and the community safe."

Research shows that processing a young person through the formal court system before age 18 can have devastating long-term consequences, including less education and fewer employment opportunities.

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