The Department of Juvenile Services says it is considering new limits on when youths are strip-searched and shackled, a signal that the agency is softening its stance on policies that have drawn the ire of lawmakers and advocates.
The potential changes were outlined in a report the agency was required to submit to General Assembly budget committees after lawmakers withheld $1 million from its budget to compel more information about the practices.
Juvenile services officials said policies under review include those that call for youths to be shackled when they're transported and to be strip-searched upon their return to state facilities.
A task force is studying the policies and is expected to make recommendations in December on possible changes.
"There are opportunities to adjust our standards, and we look forward to working with task force members on them while protecting the safety and security of youth, staff and our communities," said Audra Harrison, a department spokeswoman.
The department delivered its report to legislative leaders last month. Some lawmakers who led the call to curb the widespread use of strip searches and shackling faulted the agency's effort, saying the report lacked key information they sought.
The General Assembly had asked the department to provide written policies outlining when strip searches and shackling are to be used, and to provide data showing how often — and on what age groups — those tactics are employed.
Citing safety concerns, officials refused to make the policies public, and wrote that such data was not available because "it is a policy-based decision, rather than an incident."
"What's the big secret? We are the caretakers, they are wards of the state, and we are the state." said Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored legislation this year that would have curbed the practices. "It makes you wonder if this is more arbitrary than they let on."
Muse's efforts led to creation of the task force. Lawmakers said they wanted more information about strip-searching and shackling youths before they forced the department to change its policies.
Muse said that without the data, it's hard for legislators to determine whether the practices are being abused. He said he is prepared to take further legislative action during the General Assembly session that begins in January.
"Based on what we asked for and based on what they've given us, I'm not sure this will satisfy the intent of the legislature when they withheld the money," he said. "Without having access to policies and data, it's difficult to tell if changes will be meaningful at all."
An investigation published by The Baltimore Sun in March revealed that the department routinely strip-searches and shackles youths — whose ages range from 11 to 20 — in its care.
The department has argued that the practices are necessary to maintain safety and security in its 14 facilities. Advocates and medical professionals called the practices indiscriminate and inhumane.
The Sun's investigation found that the policies applied to all youths detained or committed to facilities, many of whom are incarcerated for low-level offenses and are labeled by the department as low-risk for reoffending.
The policies apply to youths who have not yet appeared in court to determine if they are responsible for a crime.
Del. Jay Jalisi, who also sponsored legislation to change juvenile services practices, called the report "unsatisfactory." He said he was still disturbed that youths as young as 11 could be subjected to strip searches and shackling.
In its report, the department noted that it has supported legislative efforts to prohibit detaining youths under the age of 12.
The agency's "failure to provide adequate records would only increase suspicion and doubt in the minds of Maryland legislators who want the juvenile detention facilities to be a place of rehabilitation and not of punishment, so the children come out of them as better, and not bitter, citizens of the society," Jalisi said.
The task force studying the issue includes representatives from the Department of Juvenile Services, the Office of the Public Defender, and the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit.
Harrison said the department plans to provide more information to the General Assembly when the study is finished.
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said he doesn't believe further legislative action should be considered until the task force issues its recommendations.
"I think it is premature to make any assumptions," he said.
But Del. Mike Hough, whose Frederick County district includes the facility that houses the most violent juvenile defenders, the Victor Cullen Center, said he had concerns about relaxing the policies.
Hough said he believed the legislature has already made juvenile facilities more dangerous by requiring the department to house youths charged as adults. Department officials said that as of last month, juveniles charged as adults made up 56 percent of its detainees.
"I think we're playing with fire," Hough said.
Sam J. Abed, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, told lawmakers during this year's legislative session that the practices prevented weapons and drugs from entering facilities. That kept youths safe, preventing overdoses and deadly attacks, and prevented contraband from creating an underground market, he said.
He also argued that youths deemed by the department to be low-risk are capable of committing violent crimes. In its report, the department stressed that "security level or risk is not indicative of a youth's desire to conceal contraband."
Over the course of tense hearings in Annapolis, lawmakers challenged Abed to justify the policies with evidence.
Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee, asked Abed during a hearing for the amount of contraband found when youths were strip-searched. He said that data was not provided to him, and that he is still not convinced that other search methods couldn't be used to address the department's security concerns.
"The welfare of the child should be taken into account," Moon said, pointing out that the United Nations has called for alternatives to invasive searches because they violate human rights.
He said that during hearings, pictures of contraband found by the department were metal objects that could have been discovered using a metal detector. The most dangerous substance he observed was a cigarette, he said.
"The public would be far less interested in strip-searching every kid who comes in if the goal was to find tobacco," Moon said.
Advocates, attorneys and monitors in the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit long argued that the practices should be used only on youths who are a risk to themselves and others.
The monitoring unit, an independent arm of the state attorney general's office, documented instances where youths were being shackled by a staffer in a Santa hat as they prepared to go home for the holidays.
Current policies require that youths be strip-searched when they are admitted to a facility, after visits with families and their attorneys, and when they return from travel off facility grounds. A strip search includes youths placing their legs at a 15-degree angle or in a military stance and raising their arms; they are also required to squat and cough.
Any youths transported by a DJS staffer are to have shackles on their lower legs, and handcuffs that connect at their bellies with a chain.
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