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Girls in juvenile justice: Treating the victim as a criminal

Old sexist notions and cost considerations are no excuse for treating girls differently in Maryland's juvenile justice system.

Too often, girls end up in Maryland's juvenile justice system not because they are a danger to society but because society is a danger to them. The are far more likely to have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse than boys who are committed to juvenile facilities, yet they tend to receive harsher punishments for lesser offenses — and get fewer chances for rehabilitation and education. When they act out in anger, fear or frustration at circumstances they did not create and cannot control, they are too often treated as criminals, not victims, a self-fulfilling prophecy that puts them at even greater risk.

Those are the unmistakable conclusions of Erica Green's investigation, published in The Sun on Sunday. Despite overall efforts to reform the juvenile justice system — and some notable successes — girls have been left behind here, as is the case nationally. Maryland needs to do more to keep troubled girls out of juvenile justice facilities and to provide better conditions and more opportunities for those who must be committed to them.

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Under Juvenile Services Director Sam Abed, Maryland has made progress in recent years in reducing its population of young offenders held in state facilities, with the general philosophy that public safety is better protected and the needs of the youths are better served by providing monitoring and services in the community. But boys have benefited from the shift more than girls. As Ms. Green reported, the average daily population of boys who have been detained or committed to a Maryland youth facility has dropped by 41 percent since 2011, but the population of girls has only dropped 33 percent.

And that reduction may actually worsen the plight of those who have been committed. The major reason there are fewer services for girls who are in the system than there are for boys is that providing them with the same range of educational and social supports isn't cost effective. The small numbers have led in recent years to the closure of a center in Baltimore that was providing meals, education and job training for girls in the system and of a group home in Baltimore. The antiquated Thomas J.S. Waxter Center in Laurel, the major intake point for girls, was supposed to be replaced by next summer, but the state has yet to break ground on the project.

DJS is not faultless in this situation. Reports of abuse or unsafe conditions in its facilities or private facilities it has under contract have been common for years. Though the independent Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit has reported recent improvements at the Waxter Center, it still notes that despite a generally higher need for mental health services for girls, they actually have less access to them. DJS instituted new training there after staff members refused to help a girl who was having a miscarriage and then took her to the hospital in shackles. This month, DJS and the state Department of Human Resources put a moratorium on sending girls to Good Shepherd Services in Baltimore County after reports of a sexual assault on a patient there and another who showed signs of overdose after stealing medications. Another facility, Mary's Mount Manor in Anne Arundel County, is under a moratorium for undisclosed reasons.

The department's policies on strip searching and shackling have also needlessly compounded the trauma experienced by many girls in the system, particularly those who have been sexually or physically abused. A task force on the issue voted to recommend banning routine strip searches and instead to limit them to cases where officials have an "articulated, reasonable belief" that a youth is concealing contraband or a weapon. However, the group stopped short of limiting shackling to cases where there is an "articulated, reasonable belief" that a youth is a threat or might attempt to flee.

In general, though, Mr. Abed acknowledges the problem of unequal treatment of girls in the system and is seeking to address it. But there is only so much DJS can do alone.

The judiciary needs to take stock of practices that have led girls to be committed for lesser offenses and longer sentences than boys. Only about 10 percent of girls in the system are there because of violent crimes — half the rate for boys — whereas 83 percent of girls are committed for misdemeanors, compared to 65 percent of boys. Yet the average length of stay in the state's highest security youth facilities is 20 percent longer for girls than for boys. The situation is particularly acute for African-American girls, who are five times more likely to be committed to the system than whites. A spokeswoman for the judiciary told Ms. Green that judges are working with DJS and others to address the situation, and that juvenile judges attend an annual conference to learn about issues including implicit bias. But that's clearly not enough.

The General Assembly needs to get into the act as well. It has considered legislation in the past requiring equivalent resources and services for girls in the system as for boys, but it was rejected as too costly. Cost effectiveness is no excuse for providing unequal protection based on gender. The governor and legislators can do what's right and appropriate the funds necessary to provide equal treatment now, or they can wait for a lawsuit.

This is not just a Maryland problem, and it is not new. Girls have been treated unequally in the juvenile justice system for generations, whether because of sexist notions about appropriate behavior or the greater attention that has been focused on rehabilitation for boys. The result too often has been to criminalize victimhood, to punish those who have already suffered the most. It cannot continue.

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