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Girls sent to juvenile facilities for less serious offenses

Abusive BehaviorJustice SystemAmerican Civil Liberties Union

About 80 percent of the girls committed to residential treatment centers in Maryland were accused of nothing more serious than a misdemeanor, according to Department of Juvenile Services statistics for 2010.

For boys, that figure was around 50 percent.

"That disparity between boys and girls is troubling and quite large," said Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed.

"It's something I'm concerned about. It's a very complicated question, but it's something that merits explanation," Abed said.

Overall in 2010, 279 girls were committed to residential treatment centers.

According to a recently released Female Offenders Report, since fiscal 2008 almost two-thirds of the girls sent to residential treatment centers were committed for nothing worse than fighting — a second-degree assault charge. Other common offenses included shoplifting or drug-related charges.

"We cannot call it a justice system when there is such overwhelming evidence that girls are punished and taken into the custody of the juvenile justice system for far less serious offenses than boys," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and an advocate for girls' services.

Inequalities between boys and girls in the state's juvenile justice system have been a continuing issue, with legislators and advocates pushing for changes.

The Female Offenders Report came after legislation last year, spearheaded by state Sen. Jamie Raskin, that required the department to submit statistics breaking down the services available to boys and girls in the juvenile system.

"I was concerned to learn that there were a lot more opportunities available for boys in the juvenile facilities than for girls," said Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat.

When children are committed in the juvenile justice system, the Department of Juvenile Services has the authority to make decisions for their treatment, said Jay Cleary, a department spokesman.

About half of the cases involving girls are resolved at intake, and they are dismissed, Cleary said. About 20 percent of girls are "informaled," meaning they are monitored from home.

Most of the rest continue in the system to face a juvenile judge.

Juvenile judges in Maryland decide where to send a youth, taking into account recommendations from the department.

When examining a youth's case, a judge looks at both the severity of the offense and the child's general situation. If a child is diagnosed with mental health issues or shows signs of abuse, judges might opt for a more secure facility that would best be able to accommodate the youth's needs, Cleary said.

About 45 percent of committed girls in the system have a history of physical or sexual abuse, according to the report.

"We also look at the needs of the youth," Cleary said. "Public safety is important, but we have to address their needs."

Some children's advocates, however, don't believe the justice system is the right place for girls with mental illness or a history of abuse.

"If we are putting a kid in a residential program mainly because we think she needs services, then we should not be doing it through the juvenile justice system, which is really designed to administer punishment," Kumar said.

State Sen. Karen Montgomery, a Democrat from Montgomery County, said funding is lacking for community-based options for girls in the juvenile system.

"We need to do what we say we do, which is look after people who are in trouble and provide more money for well-staffed, well-trained group homes," Montgomery said.

The Department of Juvenile Services acknowledges the disparity and is exploring more options for girls, including community-based programs, Cleary said.

Agency officials said the key is to prevent the girls from entering the system in the first place.

Abed said the agency is asking itself, "What other interventions can we look at?"

Legislators and advocates also are pushing for more answers.

"I'm hoping for even more data and analysis by the department to explain how these things came about and how we can prevent it from happening again," Raskin said. "But I am cheered by the progress they've made."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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