Maryland lawmakers are moving to withhold $1 million from the state's juvenile justice budget as they await answers from the department about the routine use of strip searches and shackles on youths in state custody.
In an increasingly contentious debate, child welfare and civil rights advocates are calling for an end to what they consider harmful practices, while state officials defend the practices as crucial to keeping 14 state-run facilities safe and secure.
The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent arm of the attorney general's office, has long urged the department to abandon the "indiscriminate" use of shackles and strip searches that they say traumatize already troubled young people. A Baltimore Sun investigation earlier this month detailed the practices used on juveniles, who are often detained briefly and for low-level offenses.
Del. Jay Jalisi, a Baltimore County Democrat, said "handcuffing, shackling and strip-searching every youth in [the department's] custody is not only troubling on a human level, but is also hindering the rehabilitation of children in its custody."
On Thursday, Senate and House negotiators working on a state budget proposal tentatively agreed to withhold the $1 million from the department's budget until the agency turns over its written policies, as well as more detailed data on how the policies are carried out, the ages of the juveniles and the reasons for strip searches and shackling. The agency has until July 15 to comply.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam J. Abed said the department would provide its written policies and was committed to an ongoing dialogue.
"Every policy can be improved upon," he said, "and we're committed to that."
Abed, however, reiterated his opposition to legislation sponsored by Jalisi that would limit strip searches and shackling to youths who pose a safety risk, and give facility superintendents the authority to determine when to use them.
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, who filed similar legislation in the Senate, said "there has to be some type of middle ground" between the extreme cases the department has cited to illustrate how the policies prevent dangerous situations and the routine strip searches and shackling of those who don't pose a threat.
He pointed to reports from the juvenile justice monitoring unit that highlighted youths being shackled during outings they earned for good behavior and one youth, who was considered "low-risk" and about to be sent home, being shackled throughout a dental procedure.
In its most recent report, monitors noted that every youth in one facility had to be strip-searched after a teacher lost a key, which was later found in a staff room. Citing that case, Muse said, "I think we've been abusing the policy."
The department requires juveniles to be shackled during transport and strip-searched upon entry into a facility and after any exposure to the public, including after visits with attorneys or family. Department officials contend that the practices are not indiscriminate because certain groups of youths, such as those sentenced to lower-security facilities, are exempt from them.
Child advocates, psychiatrists, and civil rights attorneys have condemned the practices in recent years, saying they violate the youths' dignity and due-process rights and undermine the goal of the juvenile system: to rehabilitate youths. The Maryland judicial system adopted a resolution in September against shackling juveniles in court.
The head of the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit and a representative from the Baltimore City public defender's office were among those who testified in support of Jalisi's bill Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland also backs the bill.
Mohammed Younus, a child psychiatrist who treats youths in the juvenile justice system, described the damaging effects that shackling can have on a child's brain. He recalled a 9-year-old who was sometimes shackled over the course of six months.
"I saw a small child, hobbling out of a van, fall down, get up," he said. "I could see the embarrassment and horror in his eyes."
Abed, who has led the department since 2011, defended the policies. He said his shackling policy and strip-search policy are considered nationally recognized best practices.
He said his administration has reduced the number of youths committed to state facilities — youths can be diverted to programs in which they can stay at home and receive services where they live. As a result, many of the juveniles under department supervision are not subject to the practices.
About 4,000 youths were held in the system's facilities last year. Abed presented pictures of contraband, drugs and makeshift weapons retrieved from juveniles in those facilities.
"These are dangerous … and they're easily concealed," he said.
He said it was unclear how much of that contraband was retrieved during strip searches.
He also pointed to escape attempts and other incidents in the past decade. The state's facilities were once so violent the U.S. Department of Justice intervened in 2005, and Abed said it would set the department back if it were forced to change its policies.
"It's not just the weapons," Abed said. "An underground economy destabilizes and brings our security into dire straits."
Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Wesley Adams also testified against the bill. As an assistant state's attorney in Prince George's County, he prosecuted a 13-year-old boy who murdered and sexually assaulted a teacher at a juvenile facility. Adams described the 2010 killing in detail and noted that the youth was considered a low-level offender.
"To remove simple protections is irresponsible," he said.
For at least three years, the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit has urged the department to abandon the "indiscriminate" use of strip searches and shackling. The monitors argue the policies should only apply to youths who pose a safety risk to themselves or others.
The unit's reports, which are released quarterly and include a response from the Department of Juvenile Services, also detail all incidents of violence, contraband and security lapses.
Abed used the reports to outline security lapses at the detention centers.
Nick Moroney, who heads the monitoring unit, said Abed was misleading committee members. Moroney said the reports also detail a lack of staff training and supervision that led to incidents of violence and hidden contraband. He said strip searches and shackling would not have prevented even the most heinous crime the department has seen — the teacher's murder.
Judiciary Committee members were divided on whether the department needs reforms.
Del. Elizabeth G. "Susie" Proctor, a Democrat who represents Charles and Prince George's County, said her three decades as a teacher taught her that children can often be misunderstood. She supports the calls for reform.
"I know what happens when you get this description of some child ... and you treat them humanely, you find out this is a little person who needs help," she said.
Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. a Baltimore County Republican, said his years in law enforcement showed him otherwise.
"While a lot of these kids aren't adult offenders, they're doing adult crimes," he said.
Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that while the department's policies may meet national corrections standards, they don't meet human rights standards set by the United Nations.