Protecting the public

May 14, 1991

Howard County Del. Robert L. Flanagan mouthed a short-sighted response to the arrest of a juvenile charged with the rape of a jogger during an outing from the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center when he commented, "That's ridiculous, to be exposing people to that kind of danger." Certainly the public must be protected from dangerous offenders of any age. But as crime rates clearly show, the urge to lock 'em up is just a temporary solution. All too often, inmates serve a few years, only to return to society -- "rehabilitated" or not. Unless it wants to turn large areas into prison camps, this country simply does not have the resources to preserve public safety by relying largely on lock-up responses to crime.

That's why the Department of Juvenile Services' emphasis on rehabilitating young offenders is so crucial to the long-range safety of Maryland's citizens -- and why this disturbing incident should not be allowed to obscure the lasting benefits of good alternative forms of rehabilitation, especially for young offenders.

There is a need to examine the policies and procedures under which a young offender on a supervised field trip was able to slip away and commit a serious crime. DJS Secretary Nancy Grasmick has ordered the necessary investigations, and the young man in question was quickly shipped to Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, which is reserved for the toughest cases. Perhaps this young man should have been at Hickey all along.

But before legislators and others start fulminating about rehabilitation programs, they should stop to remember the stories of escapes and other horrors that used to flow from Hickey and Montrose, when Maryland relied mainly on incarceration to deal with juvenile crime. In assessing what went wrong this time, it's important not to let this incident discredit the vast improvements in programs for juveniles -- and not to forget that the old way of doing business at DJS didn't make the public one bit safer.

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