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Chief Judge Barbera issues order protecting juvenile jail population

In an effort to protect the state’s juvenile jail population from the COVID-19 virus, Maryland’s top jurist told the state’s judges Monday to release those youngsters in detention or commitment whose release would not pose a danger to themselves or others and who have a home or other facility where they could serve their sentence, among other factors.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera also encouraged judges to limit the sending of juveniles to detention or commitment unless necessary to protect the safety of the youngster or others.

In a preamble to the order, Barbera stated that the virus “poses a risk of transmittal to juvenile respondents residing, staff working, and attorneys visiting clients in Maryland juvenile detention and treatment facilities.” As a result, “the judges of Maryland’s juvenile courts must take into account the unique considerations of the case of each individual before them in considering issues of detention, commitment and release during the COVID-19 emergency.”

Barbera’s order sets forth a multi-factor test for determining whether a detained or incarcerated youngster who presents no threat to self or others can be released to home or other location approved by the Department of Juvenile Services. Other factors include whether release of the juvenile during the COVID-19 emergency is in the interest of justice.

The home would have to be able to accommodate any required period of quarantine, under Barbera’s order.

The order followed Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe’s petition to the high court that it order the release of all detained and incarcerated juveniles who do not pose “an immediate, specific, articulable, and substantiated risk of serious physical harm to another.” The Court of Appeals denied DeWolfe’s petition Friday, saying Barbera would issue an order addressing a reduction in the juvenile jail population in light of the pandemic.

DeWolfe praised Barbera’s order Tuesday.

“Absent a strong individualized public safety reason, the order encourages courts to find community-based alternatives for children,” DeWolfe said in a statement.

“While some judges and prosecutors have already been working with us to get kids home to their loved ones during this terrifying time, several have not,” DeWolfe added. “The chief judge’s order makes clear that a consistent statewide effort is urgently needed. Our defenders stand ready to identify vulnerable youth and facilitate their release.”

As of April 8, 241 juveniles were detained in the seven Maryland facilities operated by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services, according to DJS. An additional 320 juveniles were serving criminal sentences.

The public defender’s office noted in DeWolfe’s statement that 58% of the detainees and 74% of the committed juveniles were being held for nonviolent offenses and are thus strong candidates for release.

In addition, 32 teenagers were being held as of April 7 at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ Youth Detention Center in Baltimore, which holds juveniles being charged as adults. Twenty-two of these teens were accused of violent crimes, ranging from assault to murder; eight were charged with firearm violations; one was charged with a drug offense; and the other stood accused of a parole violation, the department stated.

An additional 18 teens at the center have been convicted as adults and are serving sentences there until they turn 18, when they will be transferred to adult prisons, the department added.

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