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Bill restricting child strip searches stalls

Rachel Baye

Sitting handcuffed and shackled for a long car ride can be traumatic for a child. Deborah St. Jean, the director of the state public defender’s Juvenile Protection Division, said one of her clients particularly dreaded the shackles.

“When this girl has to come to court, she is handcuffed, shackled — black box, waist chains, 25 pounds — and she has tremendous anxiety about that,” St. Jean said. “And each conversation I have with her when I’m telling her she’s going to court, she will invariably ask me, ‘Do I have to be handcuffed? You know that’s so awful.’ It’s a three-hour ride for her.”

St. Jean described her client at a meeting last fall of a task force studying the state’s use of strip searches and shackles for juvenile offenders. The group met several times before landing on recommendations that the Department of Juvenile Services alter several of its practices.

Some of those recommendations turned into legislation that would have restricted the state’s ability to strip search and shackle juvenile offenders. But those bills have been effectively killed in the House of Delegates and are likely to suffer the same fate in the Senate. The House is expected to vote Thursday on legislation that requires the Department of Juvenile Services to provide lawmakers with information about its practices instead.

One bill prohibited shackling children when they are released or go home for a visit earned through good behavior, and when they leave from or travel to a less-secure facility — known as “staff secure” — unless they are thought to be dangerous or a flight risk. Children also could not be shackled for more than eight hours, and they would get a five minute break after four hours.

But that bill didn’t make it out of committee in either the House or the Senate, “which was a disappointment for me,” said Del. Jay Jalisi, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor in the House, “because for kids to travel for eight hours without a break in handcuffs and shackles without a break is — as a physician, I know it’s a lot of stress.”

Another of Jalisi’s bills prohibited strip searching children unless they were thought to be hiding drugs or weapons.

“You don’t just shackle kids. You don’t just strip search kids,” said Nick Moroney, director of the state’s independent Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, part of the Office of the Attorney General. “There should be a reason — there should be a real suspicion based on something that would prompt you to start down that road.”

But the House Judiciary Committee removed the strip searching prohibitions. The new bill, slated for a final vote in the House Thursday, requires the Department of Juvenile Services to update the governor and legislature by December on the changes it makes as a result of the task force recommendations.

DJS is already making changes, so it doesn’t make sense for the legislature to also put them in law, said Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore City Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.

“The task force met for a couple of months. They never visited a juvenile institution, and all their information came as a result of people coming to Annapolis for hearings,” he said. “Those three months, four months of hearings — never visiting a facility — cannot substitute for, I think, the wisdom of those who work with these kids every single day at the institutions.”

Whether the task force’s recommendations should be codified as law or simply enacted as department policy was heavily debated at task force meetings, and DJS firmly opposes writing the changes into law.

“When we implement a new procedure, we have to evaluate that procedure to ensure that it’s achieving our desired results and that we’re keeping kids safe,” DJS legislative liaison Betsy Tolentino told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last week. “If we codify all these recommendations and it’s not working out like we thought it would, we would be forced to operate unsafe facilities until we can come back to you all and ask for a substantive law change.”

Others say not putting these requirements in law leaves the risk that new DJS leadership would change the policies or risks that the department won’t make all the changes legislators want to see.

Leaving the state law unchanged leaves the problem the task force was trying to fix unsolved, said Sen. Anthony Muse, a Prince George’s County Democrat who led the task force and sponsored the Senate version of these bills.

“We have the right as legislators to say we’re looking out for our children, and you’re not going to do this without having some perimeters and guidelines,” he said.

Muse isn’t ready to give up on the legislation yet, either. He said he hopes to amend the House’s strip search bill when it reaches the Senate or attach pieces of the legislation to other bills.

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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