Monday, July 8, 2013

Maryland’s Juvenile Justice System: Year in Review

CFCC’s 2012 Urban Child Symposium (UCS), entitled "The Urban Child in the Juvenile Justice System: The Beginning or the End?," focused on the  juvenile justice system.  Symposium panelists identified several priorities for juvenile justice system reform (more information is in the Unified Family Court Connection Winter 2013 Issue, which featured articles from several UCS presenters):

  • Direct juveniles toward community and family-based treatment rather than incarceration;
  • Address racial and ethnic disparities on a system-wide basis;
  • Abandon laws that require or allow juveniles to be tried as adults; and
  • Include all stakeholders in reform efforts.
In the past year, the juvenile justice system has received significant local and national media attention for improvements in policy and practice: 

  • A Baltimore Sun op-ed praised the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS), under Secretary Sam Abed’s leadership, for making progress in diverting youth from confinement, decreasing overcrowding, and providing more community-based, evidence-supported alternatives to detention for youth offenders.  The Sun op-ed, based on a report by the independent Juvenile Justice Montoring Unit, announced that conditions and safety in Maryland’s youth detention centers have improved, with reported decreases in violence, injuries, group disturbances, and use of restraints.  
  •  Longstanding plans to build a $100 million, 180-bed jail for juveniles charged as adults were scrapped, with $70 million allocated instead to renovate smaller facilities and build a desperately needed new treatment center.   A promising part of this plan includes placing youth who have been charged as adults but are eligible for waiver into the juvenile system in special juvenile pre-adjudication facilities.
  • Mandatory sentences of Life Without Parole for juveniles, including for murder, have been abolished by the Supreme Court (see Bernadine Dohrn’s  article in the UFC Connection at page 5).
  • An  Annie E. Casey Foundation national report  concluded that significant gains have been made in the last decade in reducing the youth prison population while also improving public safety, with Maryland showing some of the greatest improvements.  

These changes represent a sea-change from the highly punitive and largely ineffective practices of the 1990s toward evidence-based and holistic reforms that focus on alternatives to detention and improved outcomes for youth.  Capitalizing on the progress made in the past decade, the juvenile justice system should consider the following reforms, among others:

  • Increase the availability of treatment programs and community and home-based alternatives to detention.  According to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit report, hundreds of youth were held in detention centers for more than two months (with one youth waiting 217 days) last year while awaiting placement in treatment or other community-based programs .  DJS has already made significant progress in this area – the Baltimore City Juvenile Detention Center showed a 36 percent reduction in the number of youth who waited over two months for placement in a treatment program.  There is still room for improvement, given the risks of high-security detention for non-violent and low-risk youth.
  • Improve conditions and expand availability of alternatives to detention for girls.  Programs and services for girls, who are generally low-risk and high-need, lag well behind those for boys.  Very few alternatives to detention in Maryland accept girls, and there is a dearth of programs and services available in the all-girls treatment facility (the Carter Center) and the detention facility (the Waxter Center), where numbers have remained nearly the same as last year.  The staff at Carter has been trained in the Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency (ARC) model of trauma-informed care, a practice which should be continued and expanded to address other gender-specific needs of girls throughout the juvenile justice system.  DJS and its partners should continue working to bring the progress seen for boys to girls in the system and should consider racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation sub-populations to ensure that progress is equally helping meet their needs.
  • Schools, social services, the courts, the police, DJS, and community-based resources should adopt promising practices to prevent youth involvement in the justice system and to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” or, more comprehensively, the cradle-to-prison pipeline.  Youth should have access to programs and services before they end up in the juvenile justice system. 
Policymakers and advocates must continue to work together to ensure that recent progress represents a new beginning, and not the end, of our efforts to improve outcomes for our youth.