Sobering news on juvenile justice

September 28, 1994

When Congress ordered the Department of Justice to examine conditions in juvenile justice facilities around the country, no one expected a glowing report. Even so, it is sobering to learn that barely one in four juvenile facilities, whether public or private, meets nationally and professionally recognized standards in areas as basic as adequate bed space, health care, security and suicide control.

The report, released earlier this week, highlights the fact that training schools and other corrective facilities for juveniles are often overcrowded and riddled with fire safety violations. Those shortcomings represent accidents waiting to happen. But another crisis is already taking a toll -- the lack of adequate policies and practices dealing with suicidal young people. The Justice Department found that in the 984 institutions it studied, 11,000 juveniles committed 18,000 acts of attempted suicide, suicidal gestures or self-mutilation.

Young people in trouble with the law are often despondent and at risk of self-destructive behavior -- and any juvenile facility should be prepared to deal with that possibility. Maryland has been doing better in this regard in recent years, but there is no room for complacency. In August, a boy being held at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center died by hanging, an apparent suicide.

That was the first such incident in one of Maryland's juvenile facilities since February of 1986. Since then, Maryland's juvenile services programs have undergone many long-overdue reforms, including closing overcrowded, poorly run institutions in favor of smaller, community based programs that stand a better chance of helping troubled young people steer clear of crime. We trust officials will quickly examine procedures and policies so that the latest death remains a rare exception.

Meanwhile, as a nervous public rates crime high on its list of anxieties, the debate about punishment versus rehabilitation produces more sound than sense. But even hard-nosed taxpayers who despair of rehabilitating adults have a harder time denouncing effective efforts to help steer wayward young people toward law-abiding habits. The operative word, of course, is effective. As early as 1967, a presidential commission declared that juvenile justice systems were failing to rehabilitate youthful offenders, stem delinquency or even provide justice to young offenders.

There has been progress since then, here and elsewhere. But it has been erratic. The Justice Department survey is a reminder of the risks of incarcerating young people without providing detention facilities with adequate resources and competent management.

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