Since coming to Maryland three years ago, Juvenile Services Secretary Linda D'Amario Rossi has moved hundreds of juvenile offenders out of locked reformatory wards and into group homes, treatment centers and other rehabilitation programs.
Now Ms. Rossi says it's time for the second phase of her revolution: moving youngsters out of those programs and back home.
Arguing that many delinquent youths are being kept in costly residential programs for months longer than necessary, Ms. Rossi has begun an effort to expedite their release.
She has ordered juvenile counselors across the state to re-evaluate plans for any youngster who has been in such a program for longer than 10 months and, in some cases, for even shorter periods.
Unless the counselors can show compelling reasons to extend the stay, Ms. Rossi wants the youngster home within two months.
As a result of the effort, she expects the release of about 200 youths, or 20 percent of the 1,000 now in residential care.
Youngsters are sent to the programs after committing offenses ranging from chronic truancy to burglary, drug dealing, armed robbery and assault.
In interviews last week, Ms. Rossi insisted that the new policy was a "natural second step" in her reform efforts and had little to do with the state's budget crunch. She said research suggested that most delinquent youngsters did best in programs of five to six months, followed by counseling and other services when they got home.
"All the research says we should not keep kids in residential programming for long periods of time," Ms. Rossi said. "Fundamentally this is in the best interest of kids."
Ms. Rossi acknowledges, however, that the effort also addresses a budgetary need.
Her department has about $22 million to spend on residential programs in the fiscal year that began July 1, the same amount as last year. But the state has awarded rate increases of as much as 20 percent to some private programs, so the money won't go as far this year.
"I do not deny that there are budget implication that are good for us at this time. But we absolutely would have done this anyway," Ms. Rossi said.
Her comments have been greeted with skepticism by some of her workers and by some juvenile court judges - who in many cases will have the final say on whether a youngster returns home.
"I'm sure the department is looking for places to reduce its overhead," said Washington County Circuit Judge John P. Corderman. "But whether or not you can do that on the backs of children in treatment facilities remains to be seen."
Judge Corderman noted that juvenile offenders did not receive fixed sentences but were committed to the Department of Juvenile Services for an indefinite period. They are supposed to remain in the department's care until there is evidence their conduct has changed, he said.
Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, who is in charge of the city's juvenile court, said he supported the idea of reviewing cases to be sure youth went home as soon as they were ready. But though Judge Mitchell usually has allowed Ms. Rossi's department to decide when youngsters should be released, he said the agency's recommendations would get additional scrutiny now.
"I fully accept Ms. Rossi's representations that she is reviewing these cases for the reasons she said," Judge Mitchell said. "But we are all aware of the state's financial situation. We just want to make sure that a child isn't removed from a placement for a monetary reason."
Some juvenile services workers complained last week that one of Ms. Rossi's assistants led a similar case review effort just last April without mentioning new guidelines on length of stay.
"They just approved one of my kids for a foster home through the end of the school year. Now my supervisor is saying I have to get him out," one worker said.
Ms. Rossi - who previously has been faulted by state auditors for "frequently changing priorities" - defended the apparent change in emphasis. "The standards may have been broader in April," she said. "But it was our first shot at this. We are building a case management process, and you have to do things in steps."
Ms. Rossi's order does not apply to the 340 youths incarcerated at the Charles H. Hickey School, the state reformatory in Cub Hill. Most youths stay there for about seven months, and Ms. Rossi said she did not plan to shorten that.
The review instead is aimed at youths housed in more than 100 rehabilitation programs of various types, most of them privately run. They include group homes such as FACETS in Harford County and psychiatric treatment centers such as Edgemeade in Prince George's County. New Dominion, a camp-like program in Allegany County, is another example.
Ms. Rossi said she realized some youths would need more than a year of residential care, either to address their own problems or because their families were too troubled to take them back.