On juvenile justice in Baltimore

By Michelle Deal-Zimmerman Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com. This article was published

Nate Balis wants you to know that kids make up just 4 percent of all arrests in Baltimore City.

Four percent. The other 96 percent are committed by adults.

So if you’re watching TV every day at 6 and 11 and have become convinced that Baltimore teens are the reason the city is on an unsafe if not outright deadly path, you might want to change the channel. Why? Because the numbers tell a different story, says Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“From the mid-1990s, until pretty recently, we’re seeing two national trends that have been pretty overwhelming, which is that juvenile crime has decreased a ton all around the country,” Balis says. “And incarceration [of juveniles] has dropped by about the same amount.”

We’ve heard this before from Vincent Schiraldi, the state Department of Juvenile Services secretary, who released a widely criticized report in September showing that offenses by Maryland youth made up a small and declining share of crimes statewide.

It would be easy to ignore this data. After all, your eyes might be seeing things differently even if you’re not watching TV.

On social media you see neighbors or friends posting home security video of a burglar, package thief or carjacking with blurry images of fast-moving young people who are sometimes armed. Do you believe your own eyes or some report?

You believe your eyes. Officials believe their eyes, too, — and the earful they receive from constituents who are afraid that young people are being left to run amok without consequences.

This fear has led to potential peril for a legislative initiative the state was finally able to achieve just last year.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Act went into effect June 1, 2022. Among other things, the law limits criminal charges against children age 13 and under for nonviolent offenses.

Balis was a member of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council that worked on recommendations for the legislation that was eventually passed under former Gov. Larry Hogan.

The panel’s goals for the law were measured, as Balis describes them. The mission was focused on improving public safety, reducing recidivism and reaching consensus.

“It was not end racial disparities in Maryland. It was not advance positive youth development. It was not introduce restorative justice throughout the system,” Balis says. “It was very much down the middle.”

However, in the nearly 18 months since the reform bill went into effect, the middle ground has all but disappeared as officials from police to prosecutors have lined up to urge a reversal of the law.

“It shouldn’t be, but it has been a little bit shocking to see the backlash,” Balis says.

But the past year or so in Baltimore has also been somewhat shocking when it comes to juvenile crime.

In July 2022, many saw video of a violent interaction between youth squeegee workers and a man named Timothy Reynolds brandishing a bat that ended with Reynolds being shot to death on a street corner in Baltimore by an almost 15-year-old.

A month later, a 9-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed 15-yearold Nykayla Strawder on a porch in southwest Baltimore. Police said the shooter would not face charges because of his age. The boy’s 55-yearold grandmother was later sentenced to four years in prison for failing to secure her handgun.

In January of this year, a 16-yearold boy was killed and four other students were injured in a shooting outside Edmondson Village Shopping Center. Police later charged a 16-year-old with murder.






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