A task force recommended Thursday that Maryland lawmakers drastically curtail when the state's juvenile justice system can strip-search young people in its custody.
The panel voted 10-9 to ban strip searches unless there is an "articulated, reasonable belief" that a youth is concealing drugs, keys or anything that could be used as a weapon. Such searches could only be authorized by a juvenile detention facility's superintendent, administrator or a designee.
The Department of Juvenile Services oversees facilities that detain youths ages 11 to 20.
The General Assembly is expected to consider the recommendations during its annual session, which begins in January. The task force of juvenile advocates, public defenders, lawmakers and officials representing the Department of Juvenile Services also plans to present the recommendations to Gov. Larry Hogan.
The task force also outlined circumstances in which strip searches should never be conducted, including when youths are detained for low-level offenses, such as failure to appear in court, and when they are detained because a parent is unable or unwilling to pick them up.
In a separate, unanimous vote, the panel agreed that youths should be provided with a paper gown or smock during a strip-search.
"It looks like we're really making progress on alleviating the practice of blanket strip searches ... and that's the right thing to do," said Nick Moroney, a member of the task force and head of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency in the state attorney general's office that had been critical of the widespread use of strip searches in the juvenile justice system.
"We're very happy that things are moving in the right direction."
Sam J. Abed, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, voted against the recommendation. Department staff on the task force expressed concern that several of the recommendations, including exempting youth accused of certain offenses from strip searches, could pose a safety risk.
The department had suggested less stringent limitations on strip searches.
Abed criticized the task force's process, saying it caused confusion and contention as members attempted to amend several proposals. Abed asked that the department's package of recommendations be voted on together — not individually — but that request was denied.
"If you look at the recommendations we made as a whole, they do work together; they really can't be taken in isolation," he said. "And you see the outcome when we do take them in isolation."
The task force did vote to adopt a department recommendation to require that staff use a "graduated approach," such as a pat-down or a wand search, before conducting a strip search if they have a reasonable suspicion that a juvenile possesses contraband.
The task force also voted in favor of the department's recommendation that it begin collecting data about the use of strip searches and the contraband found during the searches, though it rejected another proposal to require that the agency produce more specific data, including a detailed statement on the reason for conducting a search.
Abed said the department is committed to making a number of policy changes regardless of what happens in the legislature.
The secretary has proposed ending strip searches of youths after attorney and family visits, unless there is a suspicion of contraband. He's also proposed not searching a juvenile who has traveled out of a facility — such as to court or on a home visit — if they remain under the agency's supervision.
"The ones that affect our procedures, we're going to do," he said.
An investigation published by The Baltimore Sun in March revealed that the department routinely strip-searches and shackles youths in its care.
The department has argued that the practices are necessary to maintain safety and security in its 13 facilities. Juvenile advocates and medical professionals called the practices indiscriminate and inhumane.
The Sun's investigation found that the policies applied to all youths detained or committed to facilities, many of whom were incarcerated for low-level offenses and are labeled by the department as low risk for reoffending.
The policies also applied to youths who haven't appeared in court to determine whether they are responsible for a crime, and to youths who earned trips home or other outings for good behavior.
The task force was established through legislation approved in the last General Assembly session. Lawmakers had filed legislation to limit the department's use of strip searches and shackles, but the legislature voted to study the issue first.
While Democrats, who control both houses of the General Assembly, have been critical of the juvenile justice policies, Hogan's administration has expressed misgivings about legislation aimed at changing them. Hogan is a Republican.
Later this month, the task force plans to vote on recommendations to reform shackling policies.
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the legislation last session and chairs the task force, said he expected disagreements and that he would reserve judgment on the task force's recommendations until it finishes its work.
"There are advocates on both sides," he said. "Obviously at the end of this process, everybody's not going to be happy, but we're trying to protect our kids."