With hundreds of children and teenagers confined to the close quarters of youth detention centers, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) has requested that juvenile facilities release some incarcerated youth in order to protect against a COVID-19 outbreak.
The office announced today it has filed an application for extraordinary relief in the Maryland Court of Appeals to immediately release youth who are in juvenile jails and prisons, and to halt any new admissions.
“In crowded, congregate facilities it is impossible for young people to maintain the recommended distance or take the necessary steps to sanitize the surfaces they encounter,” the office said in a brief supporting the application. “Release is the only effective means of protecting young people from contracting and transmitting COVID-19.”
There are an estimated 347 Maryland youth held in juvenile jails and prisons, including children as young as 11 years old, according to the OPD.
The petition asks the court to “immediately” release youth who meet certain conditions, such as having certain medical conditions or being under the age of 15 or being incarcerated solely based on minor offenses such as “failure to appear” or to pay a fine.
And it asks the court to “consider” the release of all incarcerated youth.
Push to Release Adults
The public defender’s office has already called for the release of adult inmates in order to protect prison populations, which are at high risk of having a widespread virus outbreak, according to health experts.
Last month, a group of physicians, scientists and public health experts from the Maryland State Medical Society, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine and elsewhere wrote a letter to the Department of Juvenile Services and judges “strongly urging” that juvenile inmates be released, and that Maryland incarcerate “as few youth as possible” to lessen health risks.
“Especially now that Maryland has moved into the community transmission phase of this global pandemic, the possibility of staff transmitting the virus to detained youth or infected youth passing on the virus to staff is a real risk,” the OPD says.
Public defenders have also requested that juvenile facilities establish a safety plan to ensure inmates have proper access to cleaning and sanitation supplies and daily video contact with loved ones.
“Imagine how the fear and uncertainty we are all feeling about the pandemic are magnified for families whose children are locked into a high-risk environment?” asked Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the juvenile division at OPD’s Baltimore office.
“The Department of Juvenile Services has failed to respond to the significant dangers for incarcerated children, their families, and ultimately the entire community,” Egan said. “It is time to bring our kids home now. ”