At our Oct. 30 County Council Public Safety Committee briefing on juvenile justice and crime, I discussed a recent case in which a teenager allegedly stole vehicles on more than one occasion, was apprehended by County Police multiple times, and each time was released by the State’s Department of Juvenile Services back into the community.
Too often when considering juveniles who are alleged to have committed a crime, we attempt to minimize the community impact of these incidents. And too often, juveniles commit a crime, police apprehend the offenders, and the State Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) releases them within hours back into the community where they offended.
This is not an anomaly – just this week we experienced two additional episodes in Montgomery County involving juveniles and one individual classified as an “adult teen” alleged to have been involved in carjacking and auto thefts. According to police, the juveniles apprehended by police in this week’s incidents were released.
We are failing our communities and the children who are alleged to have committed these crimes.
And as the largest jurisdiction in the state and a county with a growing number of juvenile offenders and victims of juvenile crime, Montgomery County has an obligation to find and fill the gaps in the juvenile justice system to prevent this from continuing to happen. We must act now, because serious and violent crime committed by juveniles is becoming more common here just as it is throughout the state and region.
There have been 845 juvenile arrests and referrals in Montgomery County in 2023, according to the most recent Montgomery County Police data, an increase from 699 in 2022 and 393 in 2021. Most concerning, juvenile-related violent crime has increased 95 percent since 2019, driven in large part by a 108 percent increase in juvenile-related robberies.
We often talk about the importance of early interventions as a remedy for multiple issues, whether for adults or juveniles. I agree – we should make sure our State and local government agencies and nonprofit and faith-based partners are engaged in that prevention and intervention work. We must also find a way to return to community-based policing, a practice that is nearly impossible to execute well given the staffing shortages within our county’s police department.
The shortage has led to mandatory overtime and less time to proactively engage with youth in the community. By necessity, our police and all first responders are now more engaged in putting out the fires after they’ve already happened.
As a community, we should start by recognizing two things:
First, the juvenile justice system exists in the first place to be an intervention, because we have an urgent obligation to provide a child who commits a crime the support and rehabilitative services they need to transition into a successful life during adulthood.
Second, missed intervention opportunities and policy choices that further dismiss or diminish the role accountability must play in this process make it harder for us to fulfill our obligation.
Take this example that we discussed in detail at our recent Public Safety Committee briefing: Since 2013, DJS has filed just one Child in Need of Supervision (CINS) petition in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The CINS petition is one process we have to steer a child into wraparound services, such as counseling, without a formal finding of delinquency. A CINS petition is one of the least punitive mechanisms available to support a child who has engaged in conduct which would be classified as a crime if committed by an adult.
It’s also a tool available for a child who is habitually truant, another alarming issue on the rise among students in MCPS. We learned at a council briefing on truancy issues earlier this week that because of limited resources, a maximum of 10 students at each school can go through the multi-agency Truancy Review Board – recognized as the last attempt at intervention for a chronically absent student before potential prosecution.
And only students who have been more than 20 percent truant are generally referred to the Truancy Review Board. MCPS officials discussed how reluctant they are to go forward with an actual truancy prosecution, with just a handful of truancy cases a year after the pandemic.
The existing mechanisms for intervention cannot succeed if they aren’t enforced. Here are steps we can take on the local and state levels:
- Strengthen the CINS process and provide meaningful enforceability. Careful consideration must be given to what may be required of a parent or guardian of a child who has been ordered to participate in services.
- Evaluate the efficacy of the screening tool DJS uses to determine whether to hold a juvenile arrested for an alleged crime, or to release the juvenile back to the parent or guardian with or without electronic monitoring.
- Improve the systems DJS uses for electronic monitoring of juveniles released pending further court hearings so that they can be re-evaluated if they aren’t meeting the terms and conditions of community monitoring.
- Make sure that MCPS follows the state’s definition of truancy, intervenes as early as possible with students who are chronically absent, and enforces the existing consequences uniformly.
- Fill the information gap to better understand what is and what isn’t working in a way that informs the decisions of State and local policymakers. The state should require DJS publish data by county on the use of CINS, to include both the number of petitions requested of DJS as well as the number that DJS actually files with the Circuit Court, and other intervention processes to help us figure out ways to ensure implementation.
- And finally, prioritize funding for facilities and programs here in Montgomery County to provide intervention services, including treatment for pediatric substance use disorder and mental and behavioral healthcare.
Juvenile justice is a complex issue that requires accountability, not just for the teenagers the system is meant to support, but for the system itself. We must hold ourselves accountable because right now, our system is broken, and our entire community is suffering the consequences.
Dawn Luedtke is the District 7 Montgomery County Councilmember, a member of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, and the Council’s Lead for Crisis Response. She previously served as an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Maryland, where her focus area included mental and behavioral health, education law and policy, school safety, and emergency response and preparedness.