Maryland officials have released about 200 youths from state juvenile detention facilities over health concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The nearly one-third reduction of the state’s detained juvenile population was announced by Sam J. Abed, Maryland’s secretary of juvenile services, during a virtual meeting of the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee on Monday.
Abed told the lawmakers the releases were in response to court rulings emphasizing the need to keep kids safe during the pandemic.
He said the youths released were mostly held on nonviolent and misdemeanor charges. As a result, the percentage of juveniles detained on misdemeanor charges has dropped from 44% to 25% and the percentage of black youth detained has dropped from 77% to 58%, he added.
Abed said five juveniles in state facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and all five have recovered. He said 11 staff members have been infected and three have recovered.
“There’s virtually no one coming in through the arrest door,” the secretary added.
A suit filed by public defenders helped cause the release. In response to the suit, Maryland’s top judge instructed lower-level courts to consider the implications of the pandemic on the health of youths when deciding whether to hold them in a detention center.
“We’re glad they’ve seen the light, but they didn’t get here of their own accord,” Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the Juvenile Division of the public defender’s office in Baltimore, said of state officials. “Advocates have been calling for these changes for years.”
Abed put the number of juveniles released through April 24 at 175. The public defender’s office provided data through April 27 that includes privately run facilities where Maryland youth are detained.
According to those numbers, the state held 658 in juvenile facilities March 13. Today that number is 456, a reduction of 202.
Del. Debra M. Davis, a Democrat from Charles County, noted that it was mostly black youths who were released after being held on minor charges.
Davis added that she remained concerned the restrictions on new detainees entering the juvenile system would cause some youmg people to sit in adult prisons.
“Black and brown people are disproportionately in the system,” Davis said. “They are still disproportionately being held.”
As a result of the outbreak and fewer youths being held in Maryland facilities, the state has closed two juvenile detention centers: the Savage Mountain Youth Center in Garrett County and the J. DeWeese Carter Center in Kent County. Abed said the state also has stopped accepting new youth detainees at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, because of an outbreak of the virus there.
Asked whether state policies about holding juveniles on misdemeanor offenses would change after the pandemic subsides, Abed said they would.
“It would be a mistake to return to the practices of the past,” Abed told lawmakers.
Egan said she was glad to hear that admission, but disappointed it took a health crisis to reform the juvenile justice system.
“The crisis forced them to face the truth,” she said. “Let’s hope when the crisis abates, the realization that kids never belong in cages doesn’t go away as well.”