Prince George's County officials are hoping a pair of bills will reduce the number of juvenile offenders in the court system, instead funneling them into school, church and community programs.
The first bill would create a work group to determine what criteria an offender would have to meet to be referred away from the juvenile justice system, as well as what kind of programs would be approved landing spots.
"In Prince George's County, we have some very good programs, but we don't have what I see as an established policy and protocol so that all the juveniles in the county can be treated in the same manner," said Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George's.
The bill's focus is on students who commit "misdemeanor-type delinquent acts," including fighting, disorderly conduct truancy and criminal trespass not involving property damage.
The second bill would create a juvenile assessment center meant to consolidate all facets of the county's juvenile justice and referral process.
"It's a model where if we look at it, get the right recommendations and get a better idea of the cost, we can more efficiently manage the use of one center, from behavioral to mental to physical," Valentino-Smith said. "You increase the ability to manage the kid with a more effective approach."
Both bills are aimed at reducing the proportion of African-Americans in the juvenile justice system. According to a 2011 University of Maryland study, African-American juveniles in Prince George's County were more than twice as likely to be referred to juvenile intake compared with their white counterparts and, once in the system, nearly three times more likely to be held in secure detention.
Maryland instituted something similar when it worked with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to bring the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to the state. The program, in use in 24 states and D.C., focuses on developing alternatives to confinement for young offenders.
"We are striving to reduce the number of kids who are in the system whenever possible and trying to get them services outside whenever possible," said Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services. "It looks at the racial disparities issue and tries to keep kids out of the system who do not belong there."
Valentino-Smith called the program a starting point to figure out a system that works for Prince George's County.
"It affords the opportunity to use all the resources available locally," she said. "I'm hopeful that Prince George's will embrace it and put together some strong recommendations going forward."