ANNAPOLIS - The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill in the recently completed session that prohibits juvenile courts from committing a child to the Department of Juvenile Services for out-of-home placement for minor offenses, including trespass and possession of marijuana.
The aim is to reduce the number of youth sent to long-term, juvenile facilities. Instead, the youth will receive services in their communities.
Examples of out-of-home placement include foster homes, group homes and independent living programs. The bill, HB 916, will go into effect Oct. 1.
Other offenses that will also not be eligible include thefts of less than $1,000; prostitution; malicious destruction of property; disorderly conduct; or if the most serious offense involves inhalants.
The new law does not affect juveniles who commit violent crimes or other more serious offenses.
The bill includes exceptions for juveniles with three or more separate previous offenses, for the protection of the child, and for other cases where the court decides an out-of-home placement is necessary.
"(The bill) will help youth by ensuring that they are in the least restrictive settings to get the services they need and that’s not always in out-of-home placements,” said Angela Johnese, the newly appointed director of the mayor’s office on criminal justice in Baltimore and the former juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth.
The Department of Legislative Services estimates the bill could save up to $12.5 million if DJS placements are reduced by 20 percent.
“Community services … also cost significantly less than out-of-home placement and result in better outcomes for young people,” Johnese said.
Services for youth depend on what type of help they need, but can include mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment.
Another juvenile justice bill, HB 786, sponsored by Delegate Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, established a task force that will study issues within the juvenile court. The group will decide whether or not to eliminate certain offenses that result in automatically charging youth as adults.
"What we've found is that over the years we're overcharging youth as adults, and we saw (this) recently with the decision not to build the $70 million Baltimore detention center for youth … we really don't have a need for that many bed spaces because we’re overcharging," Carter said.
Carter, who is chair of the Juvenile Law subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said 70 percent of youth initially charged as adults are reversed back to the juvenile system, or their cases are dismissed after they've been housed in adult facilities.
Carter said the bills that passed are a piece-by-piece approach to reform the juvenile justice system.
"We need to treat youth as youth," she said. "Of course there are going to be exceptions, but we need to deal with those on an individual basis."
Other juvenile law bills were unsuccessful this session.
SB 454/HB 848 would have allowed a child to remain detained in a juvenile facility even after the juvenile court determined that the youth could be tried for a crime in adult court.
The goal was to keep young people out of the adult system to make sure they have the services they need.
DJS opposed the bill because it would have resulted in a significant increase in the population in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.
Johnese said she expects the legislature will reintroduce the bill in the future because it would keep youth safe from the physical and mental harm they might encounter in the adult system.
Another bill, SB 788/HB 966, would have established a task force to study law enforcement programs diverting children away from juvenile services, but it received an unfavorable report from the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Monique Dixon, the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said that DJS has already taken steps to reduce the number of young people in the juvenile justice system. These steps include supervising juveniles charged with minor offenses and allowing them to return home with their parents.
In the 2012 fiscal year (July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012), 61.7 percent of newly committed youth were committed for misdemeanors, while 20 percent were committed for violent crimes, according to the most recent DJS data.
"Unlike adults, young people are amenable to treatment and would be more likely to receive that treatment in the juvenile justice system than in the adult system," she said.