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By HOLLY NUNN
ANNAPOLIS (February 17, 2011) — Like most pieces of legislation being debated this session, a bill mandating equal treatment for girls in juvenile justice will likely come down to how much it costs the state.
The bill, heard in the House Judiciary Committee Thursday and sponsored by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, calls for girls being treated by the Department of Juvenile Services to be offered services "substantially equivalent" to those offered to boys. A fiscal note attached to the bill estimates its cost at $2 million, causing alarm in a tight budget environment.
Dumais and advocates say they will work with the department to find ways of providing services to girls using existing resources, and request a new fiscal note.
Similar to a bill introduced last year, which did not make it out of committee, Dumais' bill this year is not intended to require new facilities, but to force the department to be more creative with the current budget, Dumais said.
"I hate Waxter and I'd love to see a new facility for girls," said Dumais of Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, the only state facility that houses both girls in treatment and girls awaiting placement for treatment, which has been called "inadequate" by independent monitors and advocates. "But that's not what this bill is about."
Supporters of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent monitor of the department, say equity can be achieved by allowing girls into programs currently open exclusively to boys or by expanding community treatment options without building new facilities.
A report released Tuesday by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit cited disparities in the range and quality of services available to girls in the department. The report recommends expansion of evening reporting centers to include girls, so they can remain within their communities and in school while receiving treatment.
The new secretary of the department, Sam Abed, appeared to testify in favor of the bill, acknowledging that he knew little about how it would be implemented. Abed, with five years of experience in Virginia's juvenile justice system, has yet to be confirmed by the General Assembly.
In the past, the department has tried to classify girls as requiring "specialized services" because of their gender, which would allow the department to move them outside their home regions. The law requires the department to serve children within their community unless specialized services are necessary.
Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, voiced concern at the hearing about how quickly the legislation would need to be implemented without available funding, and if the state would be in violation of the law if programs were not in place by July, when the law would go into effect.
Simmons also commented on the inadequacy of services in the system as a whole, saying that girls would only have "equal access to staggeringly ineffective services."
Another bill requiring the department to report recidivism rates for children in each of its facilities was heard in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Thursday. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, who has been critical of the department.
"When we have that level of knowledge about each facility, down to how the kids are doing in each subject in school, then we'll have a system that works," Zirkin said.
Zirkin also introduced a bill to move up by two years the deadline for the Maryland State Department of Education to take over educational programs in juvenile service facilities, which would have cost the state $7.8 million over two years. Zirkin withdrew the bill, but said he wanted to point out that the Department of Juvenile Services is unconstitutionally under-serving children in its custody.