State bills aimed at reducing school-based arrests

A pair of state bills introduced by Prince George's County Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith are aimed at decreasing the number of nonviolent student offenders entering the county's juvenile justice system.

Both have been approved by the Prince George's County Delegation and are now in front of the General Assembly for final approval.

Valentino-Smith, a Bowie Democrat who represents South Laurel, is proposing a bill that would create a county work group to research school-based arrests. The group, comprised of representatives from the delegation, County Council, Police Department, school system and Department of Juvenile Services, among others, would analyze school-based arrests and referral data to identify the most common offenses that students are arrested for and develop a plan to reduce those numbers.

The group is modeled after a similar initiative in Baltimore City, which has been "pretty successful," according to David Beard, education policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group whose mission is "to identify problems, promote policies and programs that improve results for Maryland's children. ..."

Beard said this workgroup is the first step in breaking the "school to prison pipeline" created because children in juvenile services are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to commit crimes as adults.

Recommendations from the group could include school discipline reform or training for school resource officers to better understand teenage development, he said.

"If we don't do that, then we're going to continue to see these kids put into the juvenile justice system," Beard said.

Valentino-Smith said she was encouraged by the progress in Baltimore City, which led her to propose a similar initiative in Prince George's.

"Seeing significant results from Baltimore City was encouraging because Prince George's County has seen an increase in the number of juveniles entering the system for nonviolent offenses," she said.

Valentino-Smith's legislation has drawn support from the State's Attorney's Office, American Civil Liberties Union and Sheriff Melvin High.

The Prince George's County Board of Education voted to support the bill with amendments, which were later adopted by the delegation, according to school spokeswoman Lynn McCawley.

McCawley said there have been 482 school-based arrests in Prince George's this school year, but that includes incidents where students were arrested at school for incidents that happened off school property.

She said the school system did not track the number of school-based arrests last year.

County State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said in a letter to Valentino-Smith that the workgroup "could significantly decrease the current pressure on juvenile courts by diverting some lower-level offenders to community-based programs rather than the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services."

If approved by the General Assembly, the workgroup would begin meeting later this year.

Sentencing guidelines

A second bill introduced by Valentino-Smith dovetails the workgroup legislation, but is a statewide proposal that would provide sentencing guidance for determining when a child should be placed in the juvenile justice system.

It is intended to help ensure that children who commit minor nonviolent misdemeanor offenses will not be funneled to detention centers unless there is a finding that the youth presents a threat to public safety. Those nonviolent misdemeanors included in the bill include possession of marijuana, disturbing the peace, malicious destruction of property and trespassing.

Valentino-Smith said placement in the juvenile system should be prioritized for serious and chronic offenses.

"Continuing a policy that allows low-level offenders to be placed in detention without specified findings of public danger will drive up drop-out rates and leave many youths with a bleak future," she said.

If approved by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, the law would take effect Oct. 1.

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