Strip search curbs ad­vised

Task force votes in fa­vor of lim­it­ing prac­tice on ju­ve­niles

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Erica L. Green

A task force rec­om­mended Thurs­day that Mary­land law­mak­ers dras­ti­cally cur­tail when the state’s ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem can strip-search young peo­ple in its cus­tody.

The panel voted 10-9 to ban strip searches un­less there is an “ar­tic­u­lated, rea­son­able be­lief” that a youth is con­ceal­ing drugs, keys or any­thing that could be used as a weapon. Such searches could only be au­tho­rized by a ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity’s su­per­in­ten­dent, ad­min­is­tra­tor or a de­signee.

The De­part­ment of Ju­ve­nile Ser­vices over­sees fa­cil­i­ties that de­tain youths ages 11 to 20.

The Gen­eral Assem­bly is ex­pected to con­sider the rec­om­men­da­tions dur­ing its an­nual ses­sion, which be­gins in Jan­uary. The task force of ju­ve­nile ad­vo­cates, public de­fend­ers, law­mak­ers and of­fi­cials rep­re­sent­ing the De­part­ment of Ju­ve­nile Ser­vices also plans to present the rec­om­men­da­tions to Gov. Larry Ho­gan.

The task force also out­lined cir­cum­stances in which strip searches should never be con­ducted, in­clud­ing when youths are de­tained for low-level of­fenses, such as fail­ure to ap­pear in court, and when they are de­tained be­cause a par­ent is un­able or un­will­ing to pick them up.

In a sep­a­rate, unan­i­mous vote, the panel agreed that youths should be pro­vided with a pa­per gown or smock dur­ing a stripsearch.

“It looks like we’re re­ally mak­ing progress on al­le­vi­at­ing the prac­tice of blan­ket strip searches ... and that’s the right thing to do,” said Nick Moroney, a mem­ber of the task force and head of the Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice Mon­i­tor­ing Unit, an in­de­pen­dent agency in the state at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice that had been crit­i­cal of the wide­spread use of strip searches in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem.

“We’re very happy that things are mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

Sam J. Abed, sec­re­tary of the De­part­ment of Ju­ve­nile Ser­vices, voted against the rec­om­men­da­tion. De­part­ment staff on the task force ex­pressed con­cern that sev­eral of the rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing ex­empt­ing youth ac­cused of cer­tain of­fenses from strip searches, could pose a safety risk.

The de­part­ment had sug­gested less strin­gent lim­i­ta­tions on strip searches.

Abed crit­i­cized the task force’s process, say­ing it caused con­fu­sion and con­tention as mem­bers at­tempted to amend sev­eral pro­pos­als. Abed asked that the de­part­ment’s pack­age of rec­om­men­da­tions be voted on to­gether — not in­di­vid­u­ally — but that re­quest was de­nied.

“If you look at the rec­om­men­da­tions we made as a whole, they do work to­gether; they re­ally can’t be taken in iso­la­tion,” he said. “And you see the out­come when we do take them in iso­la­tion.”

The task force did vote to adopt a de­part­ment rec­om­men­da­tion to re­quire that staff use a “grad­u­ated ap­proach,” such as a pat-down or a wand search, be­fore con­duct­ing a strip search if they have a rea­son­able sus­pi­cion that a ju­ve­nile pos­sesses con­tra­band.

The task force also voted in fa­vor of the de­part­ment’s rec­om­men­da­tion that it be­gin col­lect­ing data about the use of strip searches and the con­tra­band found dur­ing the searches, though it re­jected a pro­posal to re­quire that the agency pro­duce more spe­cific data, in­clud­ing a de­tailed state­ment on the rea­son for con­duct­ing a search.

Abed­said the de­part­ment is com­mit­ted to mak­ing a num­ber of pol­icy changes re­gard- less of what hap­pens in the leg­is­la­ture.

The sec­re­tary has pro­posed end­ing strip searches of youths af­ter at­tor­ney and fam­ily vis­its, un­less there is a sus­pi­cion of con­tra­band. He’s also pro­posed not search­ing a ju­ve­nile who has trav­eled out of a fa­cil­ity — such as to court or on a home visit — if they re­main un­der the agency’s su­per­vi­sion. “The ones that af­fect our pro­ce­dures, we’re go­ing to do,” he said.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished by The Bal­ti­more Sun in March re­vealed that the de­part­ment rou­tinely strip-searches and shack­les youths in its care.

The de­part­ment has ar­gued that the prac­tices are nec­es­sary to main­tain safety and se­cu­rity in its 13 fa­cil­i­ties. Ju­ve­nile ad­vo­cates and med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als called the prac­tices in­dis­crim­i­nate and in­hu­mane.

The Sun’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that the poli­cies ap­plied to all youths de­tained or com­mit­ted to fa­cil­i­ties, many of whomwere in­car­cer­ated for low-level of­fenses and are la­beled by the de­part­ment as low risk for re­of­fend­ing.

The poli­cies also ap­plied to youths who haven’t ap­peared in court to de­ter­mine whether they are re­spon­si­ble for a crime, and to youths who earned trips home or other out­ings for good be­hav­ior.

The task force was es­tab­lished through leg­is­la­tion ap­proved in the last Gen­eral Assem­bly ses­sion. Law­mak­ers had filed leg­is­la­tion to limit the de­part­ment’s use of strip searches and shack­les, but the leg­is­la­ture voted to study the is­sue first.

While Democrats, who con­trol both houses of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, have been crit­i­cal of the ju­ve­nile jus­tice poli­cies, Ho­gan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has ex­pressed mis­giv­ings about leg­is­la­tion aimed at chang­ing them. Ho­gan is a Repub­li­can.

State Sen. C. An­thony Muse, a Prince Ge­orge’s County Demo­crat who spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion last ses­sion and chairs the task force, said he would re­serve judg­ment on the task force’s rec­om­men­da­tions un­til it fin­ishes its work. “There are ad­vo­cates on both sides,” he said. “Ob­vi­ously at the end of this process, every­body’s not go­ing to be happy, but we’re try­ing to pro­tect our kids.”

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