A legislative task force on Thursday recommended limiting the situations in which juveniles accused of crimes in Maryland can be bound in restraints, but it stopped short of proposing sweeping reforms that would drastically curtail the controversial practice.
The group of 19 — comprising state legislators, juvenile advocates, public defenders and state Department of Juvenile Services officials — unanimously agreed that youths should not have their hands cuffed and feet shackled while being transported for home visits or being released from state custody.
The panel said the department should not even detain youths under 13 years old. It also agreed that juveniles shackled while traveling should have one hand free when using the bathroom and that the department should be required to provide more public information about when it shackles youths in its care.
The recommendations are among those that will be submitted to the General Assembly by the end of this year to guide reform of the Department of Juvenile Service's policies on strip-searching and shackling juvenile detainees. Some of the recommendations — which are not binding — are likely to inspire legislation and cause department policies to be rewritten.
The task force was created to review department policy and recommend reforms after some lawmakers sought to halt the widespread use of strip searches and the shackling of juveniles in its custody. Maryland juvenile justice monitors and children's advocates have called the practices invasive and harmful to children.
The legislation creating the task force followed an investigation by The Baltimore Sun that detailed the routine strip-searching and shackling of youths in state custody, including low-level offenders who are detained briefly and youths who had not yet been found delinquent.
The task force decided to recommend some changes, but voted against a proposal to drastically overhaul the state's juvenile shackling practices.
Juvenile advocates had asked that the department be prohibited from shackling a youth being transported in its custody unless there is "articulated, reasonable belief" that the juvenile is a threat or might attempt to flee. Earlier this month, the panel recommended banning strip searches unless there is an "articulated, reasonable belief" that a youth is concealing drugs, keys or anything that could be used as a weapon.
Paul DeWolfe, the state public defender, urged the task force to follow in the footsteps of the Maryland Judiciary Council, which passed a resolution last year that urged judges to unshackle juvenile detainees appearing in court. The resolution became binding by order of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
"The world hasn't come to an end, and they're being treated individually," DeWolfe said of the unshackled youths.
The proposal considered by the task force would have applied to juveniles in "staff secure" settings, meaning a judge determined they were not high-risk.
But many believed the requirement was too much to expect for transportation staff and could compromise safety.
"That's a lot of responsibility to put on a person who is going to be transporting them," said state Sen. Victor Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat. "We're asking them to try to predict something that's going to happen on the ride."
The panel instead adopted a department proposal to evaluate whether its transportation unit could be reorganized, or whether it could work with a private company to transport youth without restraints.
The task force also narrowly voted to cap the length of time a youth could be kept in shackles. A parent testified before the panel that her daughter was restrained for the entirety of a 20-hour drive to Florida.
The panel recommended that juveniles be allowed a five-minute break every four hours and be shackled for a maximum of eight hours.
Some members said the proposed time limit was arbitrary. Del. Elizabeth G. "Susie" Proctor, a Prince George's County Democrat who recommended the limit, said eight hours was still "unconscionable."
The task force also voted to recommend that youths not travel to court, but appear before a judge via video conference. The proposal sought to limit the number of trips teens would have to take in shackles. Del. Keith Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat, said he believed the option could save youths time and discomfort and should be explored.
But public defenders called the recommendation "patently unconstitutional," because youths would attend their trial through a video screen, something the public defenders said was not done anywhere else in the country. Video conferencing is used for adult bail hearings.
The task force also recommended the department increase transparency about the use of shackles and restraints. An ACLU proposal to make the department's policies public was adopted by the panel. The task force voted to require the department to provide an annual report on the implementation of the task force's recommendations.
They also recommended that the changes be reviewed to determine whether the department needs additional staff, funding or equipment.
Despite the state's projected $400 million budget shortfall, Sen. C. Anthony Muse, the Prince George's County Democrat who chaired the task force, said cost shouldn't be a barrier to reform.
"It's the responsibility of the legislature to get the resources, to press the governor and say, 'This is for our kids, the safety of our staff, and we want this money allocated,'" Muse said.
Some advocates said they were disappointed the task force didn't go as far with its shackling recommendations as it did earlier this month with its recommendations to limit strip searches.
"So much more could have been done," DeWolfe said, "but for the determination of the department to stand in the way of reform."
Sam J. Abed, secretary of Department of Juveniles Services, has said he is committed to changing policies even if they are not formally recommended by the task force.