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Maryland’s highest court issues sweeping order to help prevent spread of coronavirus in juvenile detention centers

The state’s highest court took sweeping actions late Monday to protect juveniles already behind bars and to keep more youth from being detained unless absolutely necessary, the state justice system’s strongest response yet to the growing threat of the coronavirus.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Ellen Barbera ordered judges handling juvenile cases to determine whether jailing the juvenile would cause “serious health risks to the juvenile, other detained individuals, staff or the community” before locking them up.

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If a juvenile is showing any symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive for the virus, Barbera said, it should be taken into consideration before detaining them. Barbera also ordered judges to put in writing all of their reasons for detaining a juvenile offender.

“Judges responsible for handling juvenile matters are encouraged ... to limit detention or commitment, unless necessary to protect the safety of that juvenile respondent or the safety of others, in or to Maryland juvenile detention and treatment facilities,” Barbera said.

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Barbera urged judges to consider whether the "Department of Juvenile Services has notified the court of a viable alternative plan for detention or commitment ... and whether the juvenile has family or a placement resource available to meet basic food, housing, and health needs.”

Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, said the court’s order is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.

“They really need more decisive action I would say because the need for the children and the community is urgent,” Fettig said. “There is no reason to hold any kid in that facility that is going to be released within 90 days. Release those kids now.”

Barbera said judges also should consider whether facilities are able to handle medical issues, separate or related to COVID-19, and if they can properly feed and house the youth.

Judges also are encouraged to work with juvenile justice system workers to identify kids already committed or detained who could be released to “protect the health of at-risk juveniles during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis with careful regard for the safety of victims and communities in general.”

If a juvenile is detained, Barbera said, a hearing will be conducted no less than every 14 days to determine whether detention continues to be necessary. Judges hearing juvenile matters must “expeditiously” issue a ruling or schedule a remote hearing if requested by the department or an attorney for the juvenile. Judges also can schedule quick hearings on their own initiative, she said.

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