State lawmakers on Wednesday called the routine shackling and strip-searching of youths in the state's juvenile justice facilities "simply unacceptable" and demanded an "immediate" end to the practices.
Nearly three dozen members of the House of Delegates, all Democrats, made the demand in a letter to Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed.
Instead of helping youths under 18 toward productive adulthood, they wrote, the department "has a policy of (re-)traumatizing them through malicious practices."
"The practice of automatically shackling children and young adults is contrary to due process and the very purpose of the juvenile justice system," they wrote.
Abed defended his department's practices before a Senate committee later Wednesday. Testifying before the Judicial Proceedings Committee against a bill that would curb the department's search and shackling practices, he insisted they were necessary for the safety of children in state custody.
"We have to live with what happens in our facilities," he said. "Our first priority is to keep them safe."
Abed defended the practices further in a response to lawmakers released late Wednesday. He said they are not used indiscriminately, and about two-thirds of youth are put in non-secure facilities that do not use them.
He said it is difficult to predict which youths might be violent, and dangerous contraband can be passed in unusual situations. Recently, he said, a detainee tried to sneak in opioids, given to her by grandmother and hidden in her hair. Another hid a razor blade in his groin.
"We must not wait for something terrible to happen to respond," Abed wrote.
Democratic leaders pledged to push the legislation after the practices were detailed in an investigation published by The Baltimore Sun. With less than a month remaining in the legislative session, lawmakers are also considering imposing budget restrictions on the department that would limit the practices.
The House is "extremely concerned at the facts that were brought to light … and is exploring all available tools to address these egregious policies," said Alexandra Hughes, chief of staff to House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat.
As long as safety concerns are resolved, he said, juveniles should rarely be shackled and strip-searched.
In September, the Maryland judicial system adopted a resolution against shackling juveniles in court. The system joined those of more than two dozen other states that have moved to stop the practice.
The Supreme Court has found shackling adult offenders in court to be, in many cases, unconstitutional.
Public defenders say judges in Baltimore were continuing to order that youths be shackled in the courtroom for months after the resolution. The state public defender's office has a shackling case pending before the Maryland Court of Appeals.
Baltimore City Chief Juvenile Judge Robert Kershaw issued an order to give city judges guidance on when to unshackle. In the past week, public defenders said they have seen more of their clients unshackled in city courtrooms.
But under current policies, the practices apply to all youths, many of whom are detained briefly, often for low-level offenses. The overwhelming majority of youths in the system are black males, mostly from Baltimore and Prince George's County, according to Department of Juvenile Services data.
The two most common offenses among youths placed in state facilities are second-degree assault — mostly for fights — and theft. More than half of the juveniles in the system are considered to be at low to moderate risk of rearrest.
The policies also apply to juveniles who have not gone to court yet, and who could be found to have done nothing wrong.
Del. Barbara A. Robinson, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, called the practice of strip searches "unconscionable."
"A lot of the children that are caught up in the criminal justice system, they're already traumatized," she said.
Other lawmakers were cautious in condemning the practice before the legislature conducted its own review.
"The first thing is safety," said Del. Brett R. Wilson, a Republican and prosecutor from Western Maryland.
Wilson said security in the juvenile system is particularly challenging because the youths can be impressionable and the system houses an array of offenders with different proclivities to violence. He said he would be wary of a new statewide mandate.
Compared to the adult system, he said, "you have a wider range, from the kids who went off the rails once to someone who is extremely violent. There are a lot of things that sound bad, but are necessary."
Department of Juvenile Services policy states that youths must be shackled when transported by staff. There is an exception for youths placed in lower-level security facilities, such as the small camps in Western Maryland.
Youths are strip-searched when they are first admitted to a facility. Two years ago, Abed expanded the department's policies to have them strip-searched after they come into contact with members of the public — including their lawyers and supervised family visits. Before, they were required to undergo a pat-down after visits.
Youths also are strip-searched after outings to court, educational and medical appointments, and trips earned for good behavior.
In some cases, youths are kept in shackles throughout their appointments. The state's juvenile monitoring unit documented a case in which a youth who was about to complete her treatment program remained shackled during her dental exam.
Thousands of youths detained in the state's juvenile justice system experience the same shackling and strip search practices as an adult convicted of murder. While state officials say they need to ensure safety, there is a growing movement nationwide to curb the widespread use of these methods, which medical and legal experts say are humiliating, traumatizing and often unnecessary with juveniles.