Gov. William Donald Schaefer's call for a takeover by a private contractor of the Charles Hickey School for juveniles is an idea well forth pursuing. Bringing in private firms to run programs for troubled youths has worked exceedingly well for Maryland in recent years. It might be the answer to the Hickey School's chronic problems.
With the closing of the much-criticized Montrose School in 1988, all of the state's unruly juveniles are sent to Hickey. It is the state's only large-scale training facility, with 236 youths. But obstructionist employee unions, functionally obsolete buildings and budget cutbacks have prevented outgoing Juvenile Services secretary Linda D'Amario Rossi from turning Hickey from a detention facility into a rehabilitation center.
Ms. Rossi has had enormous success with bringing in private contractors to operate other, smaller juvenile programs. Eight have been initiated under her regime. All have provided services tailored to meet the diverse needs of juvenile offenders, many of whom have complex educational, psychiatric and physiological problems. While these private programs may not save money, Ms. Rossi has found that costs don't rise as quickly in the private sector and that the results are much better.
Still, privatizing the Hickey School in Baltimore County would be a major undertaking. Only two other states, Florida and Tennessee, have turned to private-sector groups to run their training schools.
One difficulty is that most private operators do not accept the most troubled youths -- arsonists, the emotionally disturbed, those with severe learning disabilities or drug and alcohol abusers. Yet these are precisely the kinds of juveniles who wind up at the Hickey School -- many of them with multiple problems.
Ms. Rossi believes there are private contractors willing to deal with the state's toughest youths at Hickey. It might help the administration's cause if several potential bidders agreed to testify before legislative committees in Annapolis to demonstrate the feasibility of this proposal.
Moving juveniles away from traditional institutions and into personalized treatment programs has been the cornerstone of the nationally praised Schaefer administration policy. Five years ago, 67 percent of the department's budget was poured into training schools and detention camps. That figure is now down to 40 percent, with the bulk of the money spent on private programs.
There is no reason why that same approach -- if carefully planned and supervised -- cannot achieve similar results at the Hickey School, too.