By MAGGIE CLARK
ANNAPOLIS (March 25, 2011) The Maryland House and Senate took the teeth out of legislation requiring equal services for girls in the juvenile justice system this week, but Annapolis leaders, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, are confident that new juvenile services secretary, Sam Abed, can reform the department without a legislative mandate.
"Our goal is equal services, our goal is better services ... It (the Department of Juvenile Services) was one of the most neglected departments that we took control of four years ago and it remains very much a work in progress. I have every confidence that Secretary Abed's going to take it to the next level, both for boys and girls," O'Malley said.
Nevertheless, for the second year in a row, legislation that would have required "substantially equivalent" services for girls failed to get approval from the General Assembly. House and Senate committees on Thursday and Friday voted to study equal services rather than require implementation this year.
Currently, DJS provides boys with more treatment options than girls, including trade education, athletic opportunities and community-based treatment. Studies have shown that monitoring youth close to home, as in group homes or through after-school reporting programs, leads to better outcomes for juveniles than detaining them in facilities far from home.
Advocates are disappointed that parity for girls won't be a possibility for at least another year.
"It's definitely a compromise going forward," said Delegate Susan Lee, D-Montgomery, an advocate for girls in juvenile justice and chair of the General Assembly's women's caucus.
Fiscal analysts estimated that the original girls' parity bill would cost more than $2 million to implement, which both DJS and lawmakers said was a prohibitively high amount for the state in the current fiscal climate. That, combined with a new DJS secretary, who wants to look at ways to improve treatment for girls within the existing budget, made advocates decide to wait on requiring equal services for girls for another year.
"We'll work closely with the new secretary and it's a priority for us in the women's caucus ... I don't believe it's too expensive. Girls deserve equal treatment and we hope next year we will codify it," Lee said.
Like a Senate committee Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Friday to approve an amendment taking out language requiring the department to "provide females with a range and quality of services and programs substantially equivalent to those offered to males." Instead, the bill now simply requires a report on which services are best for girls and how much they will cost.
The report is due Dec. 1, which DJS hopes will be in time to get the estimates into the governor's next budget proposal.
"We are disappointed," said Shelley Tinney, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. "We would have really liked to have seen legislation to hold the department accountable for providing equal services to girls."
"I think folks (in the advocacy community) are comfortable with the new secretary. He really does want to do whatever he can to move the department forward," Tinney said.
Changing the mandate to a reporting requirement gives DJS more time to look at how best to implement more services for girls.
"Secretary Abed is committed to finding ways to address (girls' services) more quickly. We're focused on day and evening reporting centers, which we think we can accomplish within our current budget," Jay Cleary, director of communications for DJS, said Thursday.
Parity legislation was proposed in 2010 by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, but never made it out of the House Judiciary Committee. Critics of the bill said that there were too few girls within the system to justify equal services.
Nearly one in five of the more than 17,000 youth in the juvenile justice system are girls.