Cutting Careers Center doesn't make cents

SAY WHAT?

May 17, 1992|By Chris Kaltenbach

The Anne Arundel County Careers Center has a tough job, and does it remarkably well.

So why does County Executive Robert R. Neall want to abolish it?

The center takes youths who have gotten into trouble with the law, keeps them out of jail, educates them and helps them land a job. It shows them -- and makes them believe -- that society cares. And it does so remarkably well. Last time anyone checked, 80 percent of the kids who go through the center stay out of trouble with the law.

That's a success rate similar programs can only dream about. And the Careers Center does it with a staff of only eight and at a yearly cost of only $300,000.

So why on earth would anyone, much less the man entrusted with leading this county and safeguarding its future, want to get rid of it?

Admittedly, Neall faces an unenviable task. I know I wouldn't enjoy having to come up with a budget that is not only lean, but could withstand another round of state budget cuts similar to those which sapped millions of dollars from Anne Arundel County this year.

But no matter what the budgetary exigencies, cutting the Careers Center -- a remarkably successful program that offers troubled youths a chance to learn a trade and saves the county tons of money in the long run -- is a mistake.

Over the past 15 years, Director George Surgeon says, an average of 100 kids annually have passed through the center's doors. Referred to the center primarily by juvenile court judges, these are kids charged with assault, robbery and drug offenses.

The Careers Center does a remarkable job turning these kids around; were it not for the center, many of them say, they'd probably end up in jail. Reporters who venture down to Crownsville always come back impressed; officials of the juvenile court system can't sing the center's praises loudly enough.

This is a program Neall wants to end? To save $300,000?

Forget, for a minute, the moral imperative, although heaven help a government that does. Closing the center doesn't even make dollars-and-cents sense. Putting a kid in jail costs roughly twice as much as putting him through the Careers Center. Rough math tells me the center has kept about 1,200 kids out of jail. That's a good bit of money saved.

The center has even been a model of efficiency. When it opened 15 years ago, it had 24 staff members. Now it has seven, while serving approximately the same number of students. If other government agencies worked as thriftily, I suspect the county could cut the property tax rate in half and still have some money left over.

The Careers Center offers an invaluable service, and the suggestion of its demise could not come at a worse time.

Half of Los Angeles just got burned up by residents -- mostly young people -- convinced the system had not only let them down, but didn't care. Here in Anne Arundel, we have a program that seeks to allay those fears, and it's about to fall victim to an unwieldy and seemingly indiscriminate budget ax.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest problems facing this nation today is how to help youths at the lower end of the economic and social scale. Early intervention, experts agree, is the key. From a moral standpoint, it's a matter of a society helping those who are struggling; from an economic standpoint, it's a matter of keeping people out of jail or off the public dole, turning them into wage earners -- and taxpayers.

From neither standpoint does shutting down an operation like the Careers Center make sense.

"If you look at what are the best programs, across the board, to prevent problems like drug abuse, crime, dropouts, these are the best," says Lynn A. Curtis, president of the Washington- based Eisenhower Foundation, which administers money for kids programs that provide an alternative to the bad hand society seems to have dealt them. "Job training and education, with job placement, that's what works."

Neall apparently believes juvenile justice is a state matter, that the state should pay for programs used by the juvenile courts. RTC But that hardly seems the point. The Careers Center is in Anne Arundel, its students are from Anne Arundel and it benefits Anne Arundel.

And think about this: many of the teen-agers enrolled in the Careers Center say they'd still be breaking the law without its intervention. Where do you think they'd be breaking those laws?

Anne Arundel County absolutely has a stake in seeing the center continue. Getting the state to pick up the cost would be wonderful, but terminating the program because it won't would be foolish.

The Careers Center may not be above reproach. A report last year listed dozens of concerns, mostly minor, about its operation. But officials there say no one from the Neall administration has ever come and talked to them, told them to 'Shape up, or else.' "

Dedicated men and women, they say they'll do whatever they can to keep the center going. Let's hope our county executive does the same.

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