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Md. juvenile services’ screening initiatives reducing unnecessary detention

ANNAPOLIS – A decline in the number of juveniles securely detained in Maryland is expected to continue, thanks to ongoing modifications and tools in use by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services to standardize the intake process.

The average daily population of juveniles in detention centers in the third quarter of 2015 declined 8 percent since the third quarter of 2014, according to a Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit report released earlier this month. The 2014 daily average, 297 youths, shrank to 274 in 2015.

The state’s adult prison admissions declined by about 19 percent in the past decade, according to data analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts. The adult prison population the United States, by comparison, decreased by 1 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Models that help the juvenile decline, such as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, commonly referred to as JDAI, and the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument, also known as DRAI, aim to eliminate biases — such as race or hometown — when kids are screened for entry to the system and ensure people are detained for the right reasons.

“If we’re going to deprive a child of their liberty … we ought to at least make sure that those are the right children,” said Gail D. Mumford, a senior associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “We believe they’re better served in communities.”

JDAI was launched by the Casey Foundation about three decades ago and aims to decrease the number of juveniles in secure detention centers in 39 states, Mumford said.

The model is in use in Baltimore city and Prince George’s County, the two largest state jurisdictions with the highest number of juveniles detained, said Lisa Garry, the Department of Juvenile Services’ Director of Systems for Reforms and JDAI.

Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit officials have recommended the model become replicated to all jurisdictions statewide to maximize results, according to the organization’s third-quarter report.

The goal is to expand JDAI to other counties in Maryland, Mumford said.

Data brings clarity

Data-informed and data-driven systems always bring clarity to the system, Mumford added, but more can always be done to ensure the most dangerous youth offenders are the ones who are incarcerated.

“If these are the children that are violating the law and hurting the people, then they are the ones that we need to focus attention to,” Mumford said.

“The use of secure detention unnecessarily and inappropriately is dangerous no matter where you are,” Garry added.

When any juvenile is screened for the department, a DRAI assessment form is completed for each child to determine his or her risk and the reason for the detention. The five main factors on the DRAI include assessing the severity of any offenses, what kind of supervision the juvenile has, any history of offenses and prior history with the system.

The DRAI is a standardized tool used in every jurisdiction and was most recently modified July 1. It should ultimately eliminate biases and any unfair assessment of individuals based on background or location, offering an objective view, Garry said.

“In any jurisdiction when you don’t have a tool to at least introduce objectivity, then that makes the process totally subjective,” Garry said. “And whenever people make decisions based on subjectivity, they’re using their own personal frameworks.”

The standardized tool also provides a clear-cut way for the department to assess how the screening process is going, how juveniles are entering it and why they are being detained, said Jay Cleary, the secretary’s chief of staff for the Department of Juvenile Services.

“It gives us a uniform way to collect data to check our progress to see how we’re doing in a fairly objective manner,” Cleary said. “If you don’t have an instrument and it’s all sort of what your gut feeling is, there’s no way to tell if you’re doing things right or if you’re doing things wrong. We want to do things right.”

Betsy Tolentino, the department’s director of legislation, policy and communications, said the DRAI is often tweaked to make sure the department is tracking the relevant information, and the recent modification occurred on the departmental side for data gathering.

“We look at it each year and say, ‘OK, do we need to tweak something, are we getting the right results, are we tracking the stuff that we want to track?’” she said.