Courts and kids

January 04, 1991

There's no disagreement that juvenile offenders need help, not just for their own sake but also for the well-being of society as a whole. But the question of who decides precisely what that help will be has been a matter of contention between the circuit courts and the Department of Juvenile Services. In simplistic terms, the conflict is between judges, who are accountable for protecting the public from lawbreakers, and the Department of Juvenile Services, which is responsible for administering a budget approved by the governor and the General Assembly.

A new ruling from the Maryland Court of Appeals nicely splits the difference by affirming the right of Juvenile Court judges to decide what type of treatment a youthful offender should receive, while leaving to Juvenile Services the decision as to exactly where that treatment will be provided. In effect, the ruling says that judges in three Baltimore cases were wrong to order juvenile offenders to enroll in a private reform school in Pennsylvania over the objections of the department, which was footing the bill. Clearly, this decision was necessary if the department is to have the fiscal flexibility it needs -- especially as it faces a shortfall of about $6 million.

It's important, however, that budget worries not obscure the larger goal of preventing juvenile offenders from turning into hard-core criminals. Courts are an important counterbalance to the power of large bureaucracies, and the ruling doesn't change that. While it does prevent judges from mandating specific institutions for specific offenders, it doesn't say a judge can't be fairly specific about the nature of the treatment. This provision gives judges a handy stick to use with the bureaucrats.

In the end, this ruling will prove less important than the attitudes of state officials -- From Governor Schaefer to the General Assembly, the courts and the Department of Juvenile Services. If providing effective help for juvenile offenders really matters to enough officials -- and, ultimately, to enough voters -- these programs will probably steer a fair number of young people away from crime. If not, court decisions will not make much difference.

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