MD Briefing: Juvenile Justice Reform Council

Testimony before the Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee

Justice Policy Institute


January 27, 2022

Good afternoon, I’m Mai Fernandez a Senior Fellow at the Justice Policy Institute. I want to thank the Judicial Proceedings Committee for allowing me to brief you this afternoon. Over the past 30 years, and prior to my work at JPI I had the privilege of serving in several different positions. I was a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the Acting Director of the Latin American Youth Center, a youth development organization that operates in the District of Columbia, Prince Georges and Montgomery Counties, and for over ten years the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a national victim advocacy organization.

These experience have given me insight as to what youth need to live healthy, peaceful, and productive lives, and what crime survivors want from the criminal and juvenile justice system. I’d like to share with you today some of those insights for you to think about as you begin to consider juvenile justice reform legislation this session.

When I was a prosecutor there were some victims who wanted retribution for the harm that had been caused to them. That said, the large majority wanted their property back, to stop hurting, to feel safe, and for nobody else to be violated. Unfortunately, due to the lack of available resources, I often lacked the capacity to give victims what they really wanted, and the prospect of incarcerating people who had caused harm without any provisions for rehabilitation seemed, at times, pointless.

A few years ago, while at the National Center for Victims of Crime, I conducted a focus group of crime survivors and their advocates along with the Justice Policy Institute. We wanted to understand how the focus group members felt about serving youth who had committed violent crimes in therapeutic-community-based settings rather than in carceral settings. While the focus group members were clear that they could not speak for all crime survivors, they saw no bar to serving youth in the community if that provided them with a better chance to be rehabilitated and if community safety was not compromised.

My experiences are consistent with research findings regarding what crime survivors want from the criminal justice system. In 2016 the Alliance for Safety and Justice published Survivors Speak, the first ever national survey of crime survivors’ views of the criminal justice system. The survey found that by a margin of two to one, crime survivors preferred a criminal justice system focused more on rehabilitation than punishment. It also showed that close to 75% of crime survivors preferred holding people accountable through non-carceral options such as counseling, mental health and/or drug treatment.

At the Latin American Youth Center, my kids all came from underserved black and brown communities. The organization provides them with after school support, recreational activities, housing, employment assistance and counseling. For the most part the young people I served were much like any other young people going about their lives. Some of them, however, carried the extra burden of having been abused and/or neglected and were in contact with the criminal justice system. Here again, my experience corresponds to the research findings that show that up to 90% of youth in the juvenile system have had exposure to trauma.

We’ve heard today that Maryland’s current justice system is not meeting the needs of the youth it is serving — in fact, many would say that current practices may even be hurting young people. This system is also costing Maryland tax payers a fortune. According to the Justice Policy Institute report Sticker Shock 2020: The Cost of Youth Incarceration, it costs up to $414,929 per youth per year to incarcerate a young person in Maryland.

I believe that Maryland’s youth and tax payers deserve better. The General Assembly has an opportunity to dramatically improve Maryland’s juvenile justice system passing reform legislation up for consideration this session.

Senate Bill 165/House Bill 294, currently before the Assembly would end the practice of automatically charging youth for certain violations in adult court, a practice we know is contrary to research on best practices and positive public safety outcomes and which has a disproportionate negative impact on Black and brown youth. While the bill does not bar prosecuting a youth in adult court, it does give the young person the chance to have his/her/their case start in juvenile court and for him/her/them to receive appropriate treatment. This is also the approach favored by the American Bar Association.

Pending omnibus legislation that proposes reforms based upon the recommendations from the Maryland Juvenile Justice Reform Council will also come before the General Assembly this session. The omnibus legislation limits youth incarceration and promotes community-based services by removing barriers to diversion from incarceration, raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 13 to avoid involving young children in the juvenile justice system, banning incarceration for low level offenses, and prohibiting indefinite periods of probation that cause needless detention due to technical violations. These are all research based proposals which would bring Maryland’s system much closer to a fair and effective system.

Maryland’s juvenile justice system could move towards becoming a model for other jurisdictions to follow through the passage of the reform legislation before the General Assembly. Similar legislation was passed with the support of crime survivors in the District of Columbia, New York City, Milwaukee County, and Virginia as documented in a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, Smart, Safe, and Fair II. These jurisdictions continue to reap the rewards of a more humane and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system. Given the monumental good that would come with enacting these pieces of legislation, the General Assembly should pass them immediately.

Thank you for your consideration and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.



Justice Policy Institute

Reducing society’s reliance on incarceration and the justice system. We inform policymakers, advocates and the media about fair and effective justice reforms.