By KELSEY MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (March 11, 2012)—Of the 279 female youth committed to residential treatment centers in Maryland in 2010, approximately 80 percent were accused of nothing more serious than a misdemeanor, statistics from the Department of Juvenile Services show.
For boys, that figure was around 50 percent.
"That disparity between boys and girls is troubling and quite large," said Sam Abed, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, at a recent hearing.
"It's something I'm concerned about. It's a very complicated question, but it's something that merits explanation," Abed said, in an interview with Capital News Service.
According to the recently-released Female Offenders Report, since FY2008, almost two-thirds of the girls sent to residential treatment centers were typically committed for nothing worse than fighting—defined as a 2nd degree assault—at either school or home. Other common offenses included minor shoplifting or drug-related charges.
"We cannot call it a justice system when there is such overwhelming evidence that girls are punished and taken into the custody of the juvenile justice system for far less serious offenses than boys," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and advocate for girls' services.
Inequalities between males and females in the state's juvenile justice system have been an ongoing issue, with legislators and advocates pushing for changes.
The Female Offenders Report came after last year's legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, that required the department submit statistics breaking down the services available to boys and girls in the juvenile system.
"I was concerned to learn that there were a lot more opportunities available for boys in the juvenile facilities than for girls," Raskin said.
Being "committed" in the juvenile justice system gives the department authority to make decisions for a youth's treatment to address specific needs, said Jay Cleary, director of communications for the Department of Juvenile Services.
Most girls' cases, around 50 percent, are resolved at intake, where they are dismissed, Cleary said. Around 20 percent are "informaled," where girls are monitored from home.
Most of the rest continue forward in the system to face a juvenile judge.
Juvenile judges in Maryland have the full ability to decide where to send a youth, taking into account recommendations from the department.
When examining a youth's case, a judge looks at both the offense severity and the child's overall situation. Because a high number of girls are diagnosed with mental health issues and show signs of past abuse, judges may opt for a more secure facility that would best be able to accommodate these needs, Cleary said.
Around 45.8 percent of committed girls in the system have a history of physical or sexual abuse, according to the report.
"We also look at the needs of the youth," Cleary said. "Public safety is important, but we have to address their needs."
Advocates, however, don't believe the system is the right place for girls with these mental health and abuse issues.
"If we are putting a kid in a residential program mainly because we think she needs services then we should not be doing it through the juvenile justice system, which is really designed to administer punishment," Kumar said.
Sen. Karen Montgomery, D-Montgomery, feels funding is lacking for adequate community-based options for females in the juvenile system.
"We need to do what we say we do, which is look after people who are in trouble and provide more money for well-staffed, well-trained group homes," Montgomery said.
In Kumar's 2010 report titled "Caged Birds Sing," many committed females, then housed at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center, said they felt they were unjustly placed.
"We feel that there is not equal punishment for boys and girls in Maryland," they said.
Girls are sometimes placed in facilities because their records include status offenses, such as running away from home or being disobedient to parents.
"Sometimes, we ran away because of abusive relationships at home. We had our reasons for running, but instead of dealing with those reasons they decided to lock us up," the girls said in the report.
The Department of Juvenile Services acknowledges this disparity and is working towards exploring more options, including community-based programs or detention alternatives, Cleary said.
"We will look at how we can further improve the services for girls in the community. There's always room for improvement," Cleary said.
The department said the key is to prevent the girls from entering the system in the first place.
"What other interventions can we look at?" Abed said.
Still, legislators and advocates are pushing for more answers.
"I'm hoping for even more data and analysis by the department to explain how these things came about and how we can prevent it from happening again," Raskin said. "But I am cheered by the progress they've made."