Private School for Delinquents

June 20, 1991

If the Schaefer administration has its way, a private corporation will be running Maryland's last reformatory for delinquent juveniles by Labor Day. It would mark the ultimate so far in the privatization of government services in this state.

Before Maryland rushes headlong into this arrangement, the administration would be wise to slow down. Haste can lead to waste, as was all-too vividly shown in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's fast-track approach to stadium and light-rail construction, which are hundreds of millions of dollars over initial estimates. In the case of the Charles Hickey School, any resulting mistakes could be far more damaging than a mere loss of dollars.

Turning over control of 360 deeply troubled and dangerous juveniles to a private company holds enormous risks. How will this public-private partnership work when things go wrong? How does the state ensure that these delinquents are protected and well treated? Are there hidden costs involved for the state or the contractor? What are the legal ramifications?

These are the kinds of concerns that cannot be addressed in 45 days as envisioned by the administration. That's why Juvenile Services secretary Nancy Grasmick ought to proceed with caution. The well-being of disturbed delinquent offenders with multiple problems is too important for this conversion to be put on a fast track.

Shutting down large state juvenile facilities and instead sending the kids to private programs has worked well for Maryland. But the Hickey school, which houses the most incorrigible delinquents, poses a much more formidable challenge. Given the historic failure of Juvenile Services to run the Hickey school effectively, going the private route is an option worth pursuing. We also like Ms. Grasmick's emphasis on innovative approaches and risk-taking by the potential bidders for the five-year contract that could be worth $80 million.

Privatizing the Hickey school may not save any money. It may not solve any of Hickey's existing problems. But we won't know until we try.

Still, there are enough uncertainties that the administration should delay its current schedule. Now is the time to scrutinize this experiment and seek out potential flaws. Ms. Grasmick should study the situation thoroughly before transferring control of the juveniles at Hickey to a private company. The welfare of future adults is at stake. Where people are involved, it is better to "get it right" than to "do it now."

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