Public Defender Calls On Courts to Reduce Juvenile Detention During COVID-19 Crisis

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Maryland’s Office of the Public Defender filed a brief with the Maryland Court of Appeals on Friday urging the immediate release of some children held in juvenile custody.

The public defender’s office said Friday that the number of youth incarcerated in Maryland “remains dangerously high, leading to life-threatening conditions inside of juvenile facilities.”

The application for extraordinary relief asks the Court of Appeals to exercise its authority to immediately reduce the number of youth incarcerated in Maryland and limit new admissions.

There are about 350 youths, some as young as 11 years old, held in seven Maryland juvenile detention facilities and other jails. About two-thirds of them are committed for misdemeanors or technical violations of probation, the public defender’s office said.

“It is unconscionable to continue to confine young people who pose little to no risk to the public in dangerous carceral and other settings during this pandemic,” Public Defender Paul DeWolfe wrote in a brief submitted to the court.

His office argued that it is a question of “when” not “if” COVID-19 cases will be confirmed in the state’s juvenile detention facilities. Earlier this week, a 40-year-old employee of Washington D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services died as a result of the novel coronavirus and a youth has also tested positive there. As of Thursday evening, there were 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 connected to the state’s adult prison system. Advocates and attorneys have been calling for inmate releases and reforms at the state’s prisons as well.

“Outbreaks in detention and correctional facilities will not only put at risk the lives and health of incarcerated youth, but they also will endanger correctional officers and medical staff, their families, and their communities as staff cycle through the facilities,” De Wolfe wrote in his brief. “The more people who contract the virus, the more treatment they will need, and the more depleted our precious resources for their treatment will become. Outbreaks in jails and prisons imperil us all.”

The public defender’s office is also calling on the Department of Juvenile Services to establish policies to help those still in custody, including by establishing safety plans, ensuring access to cleaning and safety supplies and providing daily video contact with families.

Eric Solomon, a spokesman with the Department of Juvenile Services, said Friday afternoon that the agency is reviewing the court filing.

To minimize exposure to the virus within facilities, the department is following guidance from the Maryland Health Department and Centers for Disease Control, according to its website. Only essential personnel are currently allowed to enter facilities and they must undergo a medical screening and temperature check. Newly admitted youth undergo a medical evaluation and are house separately until they can be monitored and cleared of COVID-19 symptoms, the department said.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.