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Baltimore releasing more youths of color from juvenile detention since coronavirus struck, bucking a national trend

Maryland is releasing Black youths from juvenile detention centers at a higher rate than whites since the coronavirus outbreak hit in March, state figures show, bucking a national trend.

But the pace of release overall is still not fast enough for advocates who say children should almost never be locked up in the first place.

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Since the pandemic restrictions began, the state has released about 60% of all incarcerated youths, including those awaiting adjudication or placement to a youth facility, according to figures released by the state. In the process, the proportion of Black, Asian or Hispanic youth in the juvenile detention population dropped by almost 3 percentage points, said Eric Solomon, spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Services.

The proportion of youth of color in the population, including those committed to residential facilities and those detained pending adjudication, dropped from 83% to 80%, according to state statistics. The youth of color designation includes children of Hispanic and Asian descent, but the majority of that population is Black, Solomon said.

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Maryland’s numbers, examined by The Baltimore Sun, contrast with a recent survey of juvenile justice agencies in 33 states, conducted by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. The study looked at populations of youth in detention facilities and found that since May children of color are being released at rates up to 17% lower than whites.

One of the most notable changes in Maryland comes “when looking specifically at youth of color committed to residential facilities,” Solomon said. In March about 77% of those sent to residential facilities were youths of color. That figure falls to 69.5% in the most recent data.

Still, while Maryland’s numbers “improved very slightly,” they don’t tell the whole story, Maryland Public Defender Jenny Egan said. She said the greater problem of locking up Black youths to begin with has not been addressed.

“More Black kids were being held on low-level offenses that should not have been held in the first place,” Egan said. “It is a very small improvement, and I am glad to see but I would hope that we would have a greater improvement . I believe there are Black children held in prisons and jails that should not be there.”

Solomon said the Department of Juvenile Services has focused on reducing youth incarceration rates overall and taken actions that have “mitigated outstanding areas needing improvement such as racial disparities and using incarceration for low level offenders.”

The numbers reflect the changes. In March the average daily population was made up of 260 youths of color and 76 white. In June, the most recent figures available, the population included 134 youths of color and 59 white.

The rest of the nation has not made the same progress, according to Nate Balis, the director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. In the 33 states studied, the youth population has dropped an average of 52% compared with Maryland’s 60%.

Early on in the pandemic the national discrepancy was not as sharp, the figures show. Between March and June, white population in juvenile facilities declined by 30%, compared with 27% for Black youth, the Casey study found. But as time went on the disparities grew sharply. In May, whites were released from youth facilities nationwide at a rate 17% higher than Black youths, the study shows.

The study comes amid national conversations about the role racial injustice plays in policing and in the court and prison systems. Protests around the country have prompted lawmakers and advocates to seek ways to address the disparities, including youth in prisons.

The Casey study is a further example to bring an end to youth detainment, Balis says.

“This data demonstrates how critical it is for juvenile justice systems not only to keep young people out of detention facilities but also to act with urgency to get young people out,” Balis says. “A more equitable youth justice system requires intense focus on releasing Black youth from detention.”

While Maryland has taken more aggressive steps than the rest of the country so far, the release of youth came only after extensive lobbying from youth advocates and justice reform groups. In April Maryland’s highest court ordered lower courts to consider the threat of the virus when deciding whether to send children to youth facilities or find an alternative such as releasing them until their cases are adjudicated.

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In May, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced a push for universal testing inside juvenile facilities. The following month, the DJS faced criticism for not testing all of the youths and staff members at its facilities.

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