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Prosecutors, police among those joining call for juveniles’ release

Current and former prosecutors, police and youth justice agents from outside Maryland came out this week in support of the state public defender’s call for judges to release all detained and incarcerated juveniles who do not pose an immediate threat of seriously harming someone, citing the danger that COVID-19 poses for imprisoned youngsters.

In papers filed with Maryland’s top court, the law enforcement and juvenile justice groups said such a blanket release is necessary to enable the youngsters to engage in social distancing and to take other steps against the virus that are not possible when in detention.

“COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, and infected well over a million more,” the groups stated in their brief to the Court of Appeals. “Elected leaders across this state and the country are unanimous in their agreement that now is the time to protect the most vulnerable. But Maryland continues to hold hundreds of children across seven juvenile detention facilities, stuck in conditions that invite the spread of the virus.”

The groups on the brief are Fair and Just Prosecution, a nonprofit organization of local and state prosecutors; Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a Brennan Center for Justice project that includes more than 200 current and former officers seeking ways to prevent unnecessary incarceration; and the Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice, an ad hoc association of current and former agents of juvenile justice agencies.

The groups’ filing backed Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe’s pending petition urging the Court of Appeals to release all detained juveniles except those who pose “an immediate, specific, articulable, and substantiated risk of serious physical harm to another.” DeWolfe stated in papers filed April 3 that his “extraordinary” request was necessary to “mitigate the potential catastrophic harm” the virus could inflict in juvenile detention centers, where social distancing is impossible.

By contrast, Maryland state agencies responsible for the youngsters’ safety told the high court that the public defender’s request is broad.

Instead, the Court of Appeals should direct juvenile courts to expeditiously review each detained youngster’s case and order release only after weighing its potential effect on the safety of the child and community, stated the departments of Juvenile Services and of Public Safety and Correctional Services in papers filed with the high court.

The departments, represented by Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, stated that existing statutory standards for reviewing each juvenile detainee’s case should be expedited but are sufficient in the current crisis. These standards include judicial consideration of the child’s welfare and the community’s safety if the youngster is released, the departments stated in their high court filing.

“The COVID-19 crisis presents unprecedented challenges to the administration of justice,” the departments added. “Undoubtedly the courts should provide a heightened and ongoing consideration of the scope of care and treatment provided to those within the juvenile justice system. But the relief requested by the petitioners does not do this, because it does not involve consideration of the unique circumstances of each juvenile respondent or juvenile tried as an adult criminal defendant.”

The departments submitted their filing at the request of the Court of Appeals, which asked for their input regarding the public defender’s petition. The high court has not stated when it would rule on the petition.

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