Many juvenile offenders under age 14 locked up in Maryland facilities would be released to their parents or sent to shelters under bills before the General Assembly.
The measures would have children under 14 released from detention while awaiting a court decision, unless they've committed a crime that would be punishable by death or life imprisonment if they were an adult.
Bill sponsor Del. Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery County, said the idea behind the bill is that the less time children spend in secure facilities, the better.
"The less sort of jaillike facility you're in, when you're 14 or younger you're not exposed to the more hardened elements," Dumais said. "It's more rehabilitative. The general public policy behind juvenile services is to rehabilitate rather than punish."
This is the second year Dumais has introduced the bill, which failed to get out of committee in 2012. An identical proposal has been filed in the Senate.
Children could still be detained in an emergency or if it was ruled that they posed danger to themselves or others under the bills.
On average, 17 juveniles under age 14 were in detention on any given day in fiscal year 2012, according to a legislative analysis. Of those, 10 would require electronic monitoring at a cost of $7.73 per day if released from detention. The other 7 would have to be placed in shelter care at a cost of $203.42 per day.
Those alternatives to detention would cost the state $254,600 for the remainder of fiscal 2013 once the bill goes into effect, and $339,500 each year after.
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services submitted a letter of opposition when the bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 21.
The letter states that the measure would eliminate the court's discretion when it came to locking up children and could endanger public safety. Intake officers should keep the job of determining whether a juvenile should be sent to detention pending a court decision, the letter said. And, it added, violent children placed in shelter care could put others at risk.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger agreed with that assessment.
"I think our juvenile justice system, with masters like judges who make detention decisions, are best equipped to make those decisions," he said.