Bobby Neall's Most Callous Cut

COMMENT

May 30, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Maybe Bobby Neall should make that proposed new jail a little bigger.

Because that is where the kids at the Careers Center say teen-agers like themselves will end up now that he has killed their program.

The deletion of the 15-year-old Careers Center, which provides job training, education and counseling for troubled teens, is by far the most callous aspect of Mr. Neall's 1994 fiscal budget -- a piece of work that otherwise does a remarkable job of making government smaller and less expensive without getting rid of the services people care about most.

There is simply no logic to ending this program, other than that Mr. Neall wants to. He tried to eliminate it last year, but the County Council at the last minute persuaded him otherwise. This year, armed with a study he interpreted to fit his pre-conceived notions, he was determined to cut it no matter what anyone said. As for the council, it didn't even bother to put up a fight.

That is a shame, because in an era when government is often viewed as a conglomeration of impersonal paper-pushers, the Careers Center was a humane, caring agency. Even visitors NTC could sense right away how deeply Director George Surgeon and his tiny staff felt for these kids, and that the young people responded in kind. Teen-agers who had been classified as juvenile delinquents -- kids who have been kicked out of school, arrested, put on probation or sent to jail -- talk with warmth and admiration about their Careers Center teachers.

"Mr. Surgeon, he's cool. A good person," says Bill, 18. Bill has been arrested more times than he can remember. Now, he is earning his GED and learning to be a carpenter.

"I'll never get in trouble again," he says. "Hanging around with that same old crowd doesn't even appeal to me any more."

Virtually everyone who has had anything to do with the Careers Center attests that it is a wondeful program. Last week, the juvenile court masters testified before the council that "there's nothing else like it," that "it's done excellent things to turn [kids] around."

But Mr. Neall wasn't listening. He wasn't interested in the human side of the story, only in numbers and statistics. And what exactly did they say?

First, there was the cost of the Careers Center: $330,660. That's a paltry sum within a $662 million operating budget, but considering the property tax cap and losses in state aid the county suffered this year, the executive had to examine even minor expenditures. Yet last year, before the tax cap was a factor, Mr. Neall saw this line in the budget and was itching to cut it.

There was also a study of the Careers Center by Dr. Charles Wellford of the University of Maryland's Insitute of Criminal Justice and Criminiology. How one views Dr. Wellford's numbers depends on whether they look at the glass as half-empty or half-full.

He found that only about 33 percent of all youths sent to the Careers Center get re-arrested as juveniles, a highly successful rate, considering that 60 percent of kids on probation are re-arrested. He also found that a mere 26 percent of program graduates are re-arrested as adults.

Mr. Neall ignored both figures. Instead, he zeroed in on a statistic that focused exclusively on youths referred to the center when they were only 13 or 14. According to the study, 70 percent of this group were re-arrested while still juveniles.

There! he said. The Careers Center doesn't do any better than ordinary probation.

The Wellford study (which, by the way, Mr. Neall commissioned) did not make any conclusions about whether CC should be done away with. It only showed that it could be operating more effectively -- and that's not surprising, considering that the staff has been cut by 75 percent over the last 15 years.

What is ironic is that, in the long-run, cutting the Careers Center probably will cost us money. The center costs roughly $3,300 per teen. Compare that to $18,000 a year to keep someone in the county jail. Yet Mr. Neall, usually so forward-thinking when it comes to economics, fails to see connection.

The exec will tell you -- and he is right -- that government can no longer be all things to all people. That it can't solve all society's problems. That we can no longer afford the "fluff" programs of the past.

But helping troubled teens change their lives is not fluff. For pragmatic reasons as well as ethical ones, it's a need all local governments should be trying to meet, no matter how tough times get.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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