ANNAPOLIS — Legislation mandating that girls in the juvenile justice system receive equal treatment to boys is expected to be filed by Friday with the support of the women’s caucus and possibly the governor.
The bill, being introduced by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, requires that the state “provides females with a range and quality of services and programs substantially equivalent to those offered to males.”
Dumais and other advocates of the legislation say the bill doesn’t require costly facilities for girls, but that the alternatives to detention offered to boys also be offered to girls.
“There are more community services for boys, and that’s where I think the focus needs to be for young women,” Dumais said.
Dumais introduced a similar bill during the last legislative session in response to reports of inadequate facilities and services at Laurel’s Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, the only state-run facility in Maryland that provides both treatment and detention for girls. The bill died in committee because legislators believed it would be too expensive to implement.
Language was added to the new bill to ensure that the department would only use existing resources.
Shaun Adamec, press secretary for Gov. Martin O’Malley, said the bill would likely get the governor’s support, and that O’Malley would make juvenile services a priority.
The governor’s proposed budget cut funding for the Department of Juvenile Services by $336,000, and he has yet to name a new secretary to the cabinet position to replace Donald DeVore, who quit in November. He also delayed design development of a new girls’ facility until 2016.
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a supporter of the bill and member of a task force looking into girls’ issues in the juvenile justice system, wants to see girls rehabilitated within their own communities, not in facilities like Waxter.
“The bill points out that we have a single solution for girls. They get into detention,” Gutierrez said. “There’s no reason why they couldn’t be monitored the same way that boys are in the community.”
Studies have shown that monitoring youth close to home, as in group homes or through after-school reporting programs, leads to better outcomes for juveniles in the justice system than detaining them in facilities in other parts of the state. Services within the community allow youth to continue going to school and spending time with family.
A 2007 law requires that juveniles in the system be served close to home unless specialized services are necessary. Last year, the Department of Juvenile Services attempted to classify “gender-responsive programming” as one of these exceptions, in effect allowing for girls to be sent away from their families and communities for treatment.
After complaints, the department withdrew the regulations, but advocates say that legislation is necessary to ensure that girls are not marginalized within the juvenile justice system.
Last year, critics of the bill said that girls account for too small a portion of the population within the system to justify additional services.
Nearly one in five of the 17,304 youth in the juvenile justice system are girls.
Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Jay Cleary said that many services are already available to girls, like community detention and GPS tracking for offenders considered a flight risk.
“As a rule, we try to have most youth safely and properly detained in the community,” Cleary said.
The women’s caucus is taking up the legislation as one of its key issues for the session, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is lobbying hard for the bill, though supporters acknowledge that fixing the troubled agency, which has had problems with escapes, bad bookkeeping and inadequate facilities, is going to be a difficult task.
“Moving a bureaucracy like juvenile services is worse than moving a mountain,” Dumais said.