One of the most grotesque aspects of the 1990’s escalation in mass incarceration was the use of the “superpredator” myth to justify all manner of hyper-policing and prosecution of Black youth. Although that language is no longer used, in Baltimore City we have seen a resurgence and escalation in a similar scapegoating of children. We renew our rejection of the perception that Baltimore’s children are especially dangerous and insist that children be treated as children.

This story also appeared in Baltimore Courtwatch

The summer of 2023 saw the return of a youth curfew, crackdowns on dirt bikes, attacks on young squeegee workers and politicians calling for more power to arrest, detain, charge and ultimately cage Baltimore’s youth. The crackdown and demonization of youth is known to primarily harm Black youth Data from the State of Maryland shows that from 2013 and 2022, 80.5 percent of children charged as adults in Maryland were Black. 

In the last several months, elected officials across the state and across party lines have made public calls to reduce the rights of children specifically. Much of the focus of the attacks has been a 2022 law – the Child Interrogation Protection Act (CIPA) – passed by the Maryland General Assembly to protect the rights of children. 

The law was backed by organizations including ACLU Maryland and the Maryland Youth Justice Coalition as a way to protect children from interrogations by police without a full understanding of their rights. It includes provisions that parents or guardians are notified when a child is arrested, that attorneys are consulted before the child is interrogated for the first time and that Miranda rights are given in age-appropriate language. 

The consistent theme of the criticism is that the law prevents police and prosecutors from holding “out-of-control” youth accountable. Bates has specifically referred to this law as hampering the investigation of the Brooklyn Homes mass shooting.

“Studies show that children waive their Miranda rights at a rate of 90 percent and make false confessions at a higher rate than adults,” ACLU Maryland noted in its 2022 General Assembly report.

Since the law went into effect, the attack on children’s rights has come from county executives, local prosecutors, state delegates and more. In July, shortly after the Brooklyn Homes mass shooting, 10 prosecutors across the state, including Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, attacked CIPA and the Juvenile Justice Act of 2022. Since then, the list of politicians making public statements against CIPA includes Baltimore City Mayor Brandon Scott (D), Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski (D), Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) and Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly (R). 

The consistent theme of the criticism is that the law prevents police and prosecutors from holding “out-of-control” youth accountable. Bates has specifically referred to this law as hampering the investigation of the Brooklyn Homes mass shooting. While the talking point of youth crime and violence on an uncontrolled spiral may feel correct for many who are bombarded by both traditional and social media hyper-fixating on youth crime, this myth withers in the face of reality. 

In September, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services released a report that showed youth crime is unambiguously declining – not rising. Further, in attacking a bill designed to protect the rights of children, these politicians are ignoring reports that police are not actually following the law and respecting those rights. The Baltimore Sun reported that police are not contacting the attorneys of arrested children to explain their Miranda rights. How can the law prevent police and prosecutors from doing anything if it is being ignored? 

At Baltimore Courtwatch, we have been particularly disgusted by the way our legal system treats children. Our report covering data from 2021-22 showed that children were treated more punitively and more harshly than adults – not more leniently. In that period, we observed 570 bail review hearings involving children charged as adults. Much of that is due to a Maryland law that requires charging children as adults in certain cases, a law that youth advocates have been fighting to change with the Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, we observed prosecutors argue to hold children in adult jails six percentage points more often than actual adults (86.3 percent versus 77.3 percent). In the same period, judges ordered children held in adult jails 13 percentage points more often than adults (64.7 percent versus 51.7 percent). 

In other words, Baltimore City Circuit Court judges held children in the most restrictive possible conditions significantly more often than they imposed those conditions on adults. In fact, judges chose the least restrictive possible option for children only 1.2 percent of the time. The number for adults was 4.1 percent. We will not release 2023 data before early 2024 to allow for an accumulation of enough data. In the meantime, we can say there is not an obvious or overwhelming shift from the previous years of observations.

Blaming children for the problems adults have caused is convenient for politicians due to the massive power imbalance. Baltimore City’s youth are over-policed, under-invested in and have the least access to power. They have no right to vote or to choose the budget. They have not created any of the conditions they are forced to survive. For example, Baltimore’s youth did not choose to fund school police over HVAC. 

It is inconceivable that a teenager has too much power in this city and that the mayor, city council, State’s Attorney, and Baltimore Police Department have too little. Adults in this city must accept that we have failed to create a world within which children are safe and can flourish.