By Joe Magar
At our seders next month, we will tell the story of the exodus to four different children, all asking from their own place. We are taught to address each one in their own way according to their understanding of the world.
The Child Interrogation Protection Act (HB 624/SB 593), introduced in the Maryland General Assembly this session by Del. Brooke Leirman (D-District 46) and state Sen. Jill Carter (D-District 41), would assure that law enforcement interact with children in the same developmentally appropriate manner by requiring parental notification and consultation with an attorney prior to interrogation of youth in police custody.
Currently, it is up to the discretion of the police officer interrogating a minor to determine if that child fully understands their constitutional rights.
I recently went to Annapolis with Jews United for Justice to support this bill. There, I saw how the arguments against this bill made by law enforcement demonstrated precisely why the bill is so necessary to protect children.
In recent years, research has shed light on why adolescents are such poor decision makers. It turns out, their brains just aren’t done cooking yet. It isn’t until someone is well into their mid-20s that their frontal lobe is fully developed. The later development of the frontal lobe, an area of the brain associated with decision making, reasoning, and judgment, may be responsible for the higher risk behavior and poor impulse control in teens and young adults.
This understanding of cognitive development informs how we train educators, medical professionals, social workers, and therapists; yet in recent hearings on the Child Interrogation Protection Act, police officers and prosecutors make clear that law enforcement does not understand child development. “When I talk about his size, I really want to emphasize the IQ,” Scott Shellenberger, state’s attorney for Baltimore County, stated. His fear-mongering language about the size and IQ of the teen he was talking about belied the argument that police are appropriately gauging adolescents’ ability to understand, and thus waive, their Miranda rights.
A teenager’s brain is a teenager’s brain. Size and intelligence are irrelevant unless Shellenberger is suggesting that Maryland cops can use these factors to accurately assess myelination in the prefrontal cortex.
Clinging to arguments centering around size and intelligence, two factors that deemphasize youth, also demonstrates law enforcement’s unwillingness to confront the impact of systemic racism.
Justin Nalley, from the ACLU of Maryland, pointed out that in Baltimore, black children account for 90% of juvenile arrests while only representing 64% of the city’s youth. Dayvon Love, director of public policy for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, spoke to the impact of anti-blackness and white supremacy on how black children are seen as less innocent and/or perceived as more adult than non-black children of the same age, which a study by the American Psychological Association confirmed.
William Katcef, an assistant state’s attorney in Anne Arundel County, stated, “the essentials of Miranda have survived for 54 years” and that “those standards should be good enough for this committee.” He made this argument despite hearing from Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore City, that eight of the nine previous convictions overturned by the Conviction Integrity Unit all involved faulty testimony from minors. As more than 90% of children age 16-17 convicted of a felony waived their rights, it is quite clear that cops are either not able, or not willing, to uphold them.
In the end, when presented with science, wrongful conviction data, and lived experience from a diverse group of advocates demonstrating how and why we need to protect our children, cops and prosecutors respond no, we need to protect you from children. Maybe law enforcement will be less intimidated by children when they stop obsessing over size.
If you want to ensure that it is not left up to the police to make developmental assessments of your children that they are clearly unqualified to make, reach out to your elected officials and express support for the Child Interrogation Protection Act, and demand they protect the rights of Maryland’s youth.
Joe Magar is a volunteer with Jews United for Justice living in Baltimore.