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Editorial Advisory Board: Parity now for girls in the juvenile justice system

Last year the General Assembly considered, but did not pass, a bill directing the Department of Juvenile Services to provide the girls it serves with a “range and quality of services substantially equivalent to those offered to males.” We supported that bill last year because there was a significant disparity between services the Department provided to boys and girls.

A similar bill has been introduced this legislative session, HB 511. We continue to support the bill because the disparity between services for girls and boys is the same today as it was last year. There still are no vocational programs for girls in secure detention while boys have a selection of vocational programs. Still no access to community college programs for girls, while there is at least one college program for boys. Still no organized sports teams for girls, no access to gyms or pools. Boys have those.

And it may have gotten worse. In response to the parity legislation introduced last year, The Department of Juvenile Services convened a Task Force to focus on the needs of the girls its serves. The Task Force has met but has not issued a report and has made no specific findings to guide the Department. Even though the Department supported the bill last year, there is still no observable plan to provide parity to girls.

Led by Delegate Dumais, 43 delegates, from both sides of the aisle, have signed on as sponsors of HB 511. The time is right to pass HB 511 because eliminating the parity gap is one step toward better outcomes for the girls the Department serves. The research shows that effective programs for girls must include, among other things, vocational program opportunities and recreational activities that provide girls with positive experiences. Both of those components of effective programming are totally absent from the services the Department provides girls.

Much more is lacking. HB 511 is just the thing to initiate progress toward parity.

Last year the Department testified that it did not have the resources to build additional facilities for girls. Parity is not necessarily a facility-based issue, however, and the testimony of the advocates last year made it clear. It is a service-based issue, and HB 511 makes that clear. Unlike last year’s bill, HB 511 also makes clear that the Department must use its existing resources to provide parity for girls. The bill directs the Department to come up with a plan by Jan. 1, 2012, describing how the Department will use existing resources to provide “substantially equivalent” services to girls as those it will provide to boys beginning FY 2013.

The services to be particularly addressed in the plan are prevention and diversion, alternatives to detention, evidence-based programs for probation or residential placement, and educational and vocational training. Thus, the bill gives the new Secretary of the Department a full year to develop an effective programming plan for girls. In doing so, there may be debate about the meaning of “substantially equivalent” in the day-to-day world of juvenile services, but at least there will be debate. Right now there is no debate, no plan, no parity. The time is right to pass HB 511.

Editorial Advisory Board members John S. Bainbridge Jr., Arthur Fergenson, Frederic N. Smalkin and Christopher West did not participate in this opinion.