Experts urge limits on strip-searching youths
Practice should be used only in cases of ‘reasonable’ suspicion, task force told
The Department of Juvenile Services should strip-search youths charged with crimes only when agency officials have a “reasonable” suspicion that they have contraband, a panel of national experts told a state task force Thursday.
Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said state policy is too broad because it requires strip searches when young people are first detained and after contacts with the public.
Guidelines from nationally recognized organizations, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the American Correctional Association, suggest that juveniles be strip-searched only in certain cases. The department has said some of its policies are guided by those organizations’ standards.
“DJS policy, as it is written now, goes the other way,” Soler said. “They are broadly tailored, and they’re also not consistent with national juvenile corrections standards.”
The task force, composed of advocates, lawmakers and juvenile system staffers, is expected to submit recommended changes to DJS policy regarding strip searches and shackling of juveniles in December to Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly.
The department has been under fire since a Baltimore Sun investigation in March highlighted the routine stripsearching of juveniles in state custody and the shackling of juveniles in court.
Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed has already agreed not to require strip searches after visits with attorneys and family members, and after the youths return from court appearances. He has asked that those limits be part of the task force’s formal recommendations.
A consensus has not been reached on whether juveniles should be routinely strip-searched during intake to a state facility.
Abed said that while nationally recognized guidelines suggest strip searches may not be necessary after visits, those guidelines don’t say such searches should be limited at intake.
John Irvine, the department’s head of research and evaluation, said a review of 36 states found that 86 percent required strip searches at intake. Two-thirds required strip searches after family visits. And 32 states, or 89 percent reviewed, had policies that called for strip searches based on “reasonable suspicion.”
Abed has stressed the need to ensure safety in state facilities. He noted that families have attempted to pass drugs to youths they visit. He said Thursday that the department is evaluating whether to acquire pan-and-zoom cameras that would allow staff to better supervise family visits.
Every juvenile, regardless of age, alleged crime or whether they have been found responsible for the crime, is strip-searched upon intake. About 4,300 youths cycled through the detention system last year.
In the most recent fiscal year, state officials said, two 10-year-olds were detained — one for 21⁄ days, the other for 21⁄ hours — and both were strip-searched. The majority of youths detained by DJS are 15 to 17 years old, Irvine said.
Some experts contend the practice traumatizes youths during formative years. Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, read Thursday from statements by juveniles who had been detained. The youths described feeling violated and ashamed. Some said the experience recalled sexual abuse they had suffered.
Still, research directly linking strip searches with trauma is limited.
Arlene F. Lee, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children, who serves on the Maryland task force, said she believes experts are extrapolating information from different studies and passing their opinions off as research.
“There’s best practice and there’s science — and the science is really young around this,” Lee said.
Loyola University Maryland junior Eric Baker, lying in front, is one of the students who took a turn representing African-Americans who have died in confrontations with police, while other students and teachers sit near him in a protest staged at the school Thursday. The students say they want to bring greater awareness to their "#Too Many Lives Lost" campaign, which includes signs dotting the campus.