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Maryland lawmakers seek to address gender gaps in juvenile justice

State lawmakers say they will seek to increase funding and services for young female offenders in the next General Assembly in an effort to address long standing gender disparities in the juvenile justice system.

Maryland lawmakers say they will seek to increase funding and services for young female offenders next year in an effort to address long-standing gender disparities in the state's juvenile justice system.

Del. Kathleen Dumais, who introduced legislation in 2010 seeking parity in services for girls in the justice system, said she would resurrect a version of that bill in the General Assembly session that begins Jan. 11.

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The 2010 bill, which sought to "provide females … with a range and quality of services substantially equivalent to those offered to males," never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Some members argued there weren't enough girls in the system to warrant a legal mandate.

Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat who serves as the committee's vice chair, said the new bill will look different, but still seek "better funding for programs and better access for girls across the state."

The bill is being reintroduced in response to a Baltimore Sun investigation published this month. It found that girls in Maryland's juvenile justice system are subjected to harsher punishment than boys and, though they are more likely to come from troubled backgrounds, have fewer placement and treatment options.

"There's not been a whole lot of change," since 2010, Dumais said. "I acknowledge the difficulties given the low numbers, but we just can't let this continue — particularly given the complexities around why girls end up in the juvenile system."

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Michael E. Bush, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said lawmakers are concerned about a number of issues in the juvenile system, and will add the "disparate, unequal treatment of juvenile offenders" to their list.

"This will certainly be an issue that gets a priority attention from the House this year," said Alexandra Hughes, the spokeswoman.

The Sun found that girls in Maryland are disproportionately locked up for misdemeanors, which are minor offenses. And they are more likely than boys to be taken before a judge for probation offenses such as running away, breaking curfew and defying their parents.

Many young female offenders are sent to maximum-security facilities, mental institutions or group homes. Boys, meanwhile, have access to more treatment options — in state-run medium-security camps in Western Maryland and a boarding school in Carroll County where they can earn a high school diploma and trade certificates.

And, once in the system, girls are often detained longer than boys. At the state's most secure facilities, they are held an average of 25 percent longer, even though girls are less likely to be there for felonies or violent offenses.

Sam J. Abed, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said his agency has worked to help girls by diverting them away from the system. The department has reduced the total number of committed youths by nearly 40 percent under his tenure.

He believes that only youths who pose a public safety threat should be committed to the state's custody — which is not the vast majority of girls in the system. Many need help, not punishment, he said.

A spokeswoman said the department was "completely committed" to helping youths in custody "receive the services, treatment, and support they need."

The agency is screening youths for behavioral health problems when they are processed at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Those identified as needing services are then treated outside the juvenile justice system.

A program in Prince George's and Montgomery counties allows youths involved in both child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases — so-called "crossover youth" — to have both cases heard by the same judge. The program is designed to coordinate services to address both delinquency and family needs.

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Juvenile Services officials said they would welcome more support to improve and build upon the services provided to youths in the system.

According to state data, girls are the most vulnerable population in the system.

Twenty-four percent of the girls have been physically abused, compared to 11 percent of boys. And 30 percent of girls in the system have been sexually abused, compared to 5 percent of their male counterparts.

Sixty-two percent have a "high" need for mental health treatment, while 41 percent of boys do.

State Sen. Delores Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, said women lawmakers and judges have long been concerned about girls in the system.

Kelley, vice chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said she is exploring legislative solutions. For example, she wonders if the Department of Juvenile Services could divert the amount of money it spends on housing the girls in secure facilities — $160 to $795 per night per girl — to community programs.

"We need a lot more community services," Kelley said, "because a lot of girls belong in the community, and the girls are not getting the services they need."

State Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican who recently sat on a Juvenile Services task force, said he would need to see legislation before committing to support it. But he said more could be done to focus on underserved regions.

"There are some communities where there are a lot of government resources working together, and places where there aren't," he said.

He also said the gender disparity issue illustrates the need to free the state budget of mandated expenses so more can be spent on other pressing problems.

"When something like this comes up, where we can all agree that we would want to allocate resources, it gets harder and harder to address important needs because we're so out of whack," Ready said. "But I know we can figure something out."

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