The Maryland Court of Appeals denied a petition to release low-level offenders from Maryland’s juvenile facilities, but hinted that the chief judge will issue guidance “shortly” on how lower courts should handle the growing coronavirus pandemic.
The state’s highest court issued its order late Friday, hours after the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services confirmed six cases of COVID-19 at detention center facilities statewide Friday.
The Maryland Office of Pulbic Defender filed an emergency motion late Thursday, saying the situation inside facilities is deteriorating as the coronavirus spreads.
“No event in the past half-century has upended daily life and court operations in Maryland and across the country to the extent that the COVID-19 pandemic has,” the public defender’s office asserted in its petition. “The children who were exposed to the infected staff are now spending 24 hours per day in solitary confinement.”
That argument wasn’t enough to get the Court of Appeals to act, at least not immediately. In its denial, the court specifically said it was “cognizant” that an court administrative order is on the way.
“The Chief Judge will issue shortly an administrative order pursuant to the Maryland Constitution ... which will provide direction and guidance to the Administrative Judges of the respective judicial circuits in connection with important health concerns affecting juveniles committed or detained in facilities in Maryland during the COVID-19 virus pandemic," the order said.
Three youths, two staff members and one contractor tested positive for the virus, department spokesman Eric Solomon said Friday. Solomon said the three youths are at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury and the Alfred D. Noyes Children Center in Montgomery County.
All staff and youth have been directed to wear protective masks to minimize exposure and contraction of the virus.
In its petition to the high court, the public defender’s office said kids as young as 10 years old have been placed in solitary confinement after being exposed to the virus. The petition asked the court to release most juvenile detainees, amend the conditions of juvenile probation and relocate kids to new places for food and shelter.
It is the public defender’s office’s second attempt to get the courts to intervene. The most recent petition noted that conditions have worsened in just the past five days.
Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the Juvenile Division of the public defender’s office in Baltimore, said youths in detention centers who were exposed are now in near-24-hour solitary confinement. Her office has said the isolation will have “harmful effects” on adolescents placed in confinement in cells.
Egan said in court filings that the state told her there are pending tests for other youths at the Baltimore City, Eastern Shore and Noyes juvenile facilities.
“Youth in juvenile jail, especially those subject to stringent physical distancing, are now deprived of the kind of emotional support, reassurance and care that experts say are necessary to weather the emotional harms of traumatic events,” an original petition filed by the office on April 4 says.
States around the country have banned the use of solitary confinement for youth, said Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate with the Sentencing Project. Rovner says that this situation was predictable, after experts have asked for kids to be released from detention facilities nationwide, and that it was only a matter of time until it affected Maryland.
“Isolating kids for their own health shows the other failure of Maryland being able to protect these children’s health safety and well-being,” Rovner said.