Praised juvenile boot camp to close Program falls victim to budget cuts despite its apparent success

March 07, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

At the end of this month, state Juvenile Justice officials will shut down a program that is a rarity: The community embraced it, and everyone seems to agree it was working.

But Stuart O. Simms, secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice, says he is so strapped for cash to serve an ever-growing number of youths that there is no alternative to closing the Maryland Juvenile Boot Camp in Charles County.

It was at the camp in Doncaster that boys ages 15 to 18 marched in military-style drills, took classes and were given substantial guidance.

For many child advocates, residents and some legislators, the closing of the camp represents a setback for new ways of dealing with juvenile crime.

"You talk to any of the boys there, and you immediately see kids that are on their way to getting some structure around their day-by-day life," said Dorothea Rees, a member of the Doncaster Boot Camp Advisory Board, a panel of residents chosen to monitor the project for the community. "It's an excellent program."

This is not the first time a well-regarded juvenile program has fallen victim to the budget ax.

The Fort Smallwood Marine Institute, a program to train delinquent youths in sailing, diving and other skills on the Patapsco River, perished in 1992. Mr. Simms, who was then Baltimore state's attorney, lamented the closing at the time.

But as secretary, he says his agency lacks the funds to keep the boot camp open, having been hit earlier this year with a $5 million cut stemming from the belt-tightening in Washington.

"I couldn't [afford] the fancy Oldsmobile that had the 90-day length of stay and good after-care," he told a House dTC subcommittee in Annapolis last week, referring to the boot camp. "I'm not saying it wasn't a good Oldsmobile."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has submitted a $115 million Juvenile Justice budget for the next fiscal year -- $5 million less than in fiscal 1996. And a fiscal analyst for the legislature has recommended another $500,000 in cuts.

The Juvenile Justice system is clearly being pushed to the limit.

The Cheltenham Youth Facility in southern Prince George's County -- the state's largest juvenile detention fa- cility -- is chronically crowded, with more than 200 teen-age boys squeezing into quarters designed for 167.

Many of the teen-agers shouldn't be there at all, but end up waiting months at Cheltenham because the permanent facilities to which they have been assigned are also full. About 60 percent of the youths in detention at Cheltenham are from Baltimore.

After visiting Cheltenham last fall at Mr. Simms' request, consultants for Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation wrote that the facility was operating far below standards.

Remedies, they wrote, would require "substantial new resources" as well as reducing the number of juveniles sent to detention.

"The problem that the department faces, it's not like they don't know," said Bart Lubow, a senior associate at the foundation who helped with the study. "The question is, where's the dough coming from?"

Mr. Simms said he has improved Cheltenham markedly since the consultants' visit -- reducing the number of youths there, improving food service and intensifying management oversight. Physical improvements have been made, as well, and much more is planned, he said.

How will the system benefit from the $2.7 million saved in the next fiscal year by closing the boot camp?

Mr. Simms plans to put nearly $700,000 into a short-term "impact" program at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. The school is run by Youth Services International, a publicly traded company started by the founder of Jiffy Lube.

In addition, the department plans to use $1.2 million for three day programs to get youths out of formal detention and into intensive supervision in their communities.

Electronic monitoring and counseling would allow up to 60 youths at a time to attend regular school and live at home. The rest of the money would go to maintain temporary beds and to bring youths placed out of state back to Maryland.

Officials already have money to build a new juvenile justice center, with law courts, 144 detention beds and other services for young people under one roof. They hope to build it in East Baltimore within two years.

Mr. Simms called the Hickey program the "Chevrolet" he can afford -- basic, reliable and able to take more youths for the money.

While he said the response to the Hickey program has been "pretty good," he acknowledged the department has no firm statistics to show how well it is working.

Simms said he hopes a Juvenile Justice conference, to be held in Annapolis Monday, March 11, will help lawmakers and officials jointly chart a more efficient course for the system.

Susan P. Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the day programs are a step in the right direction. But she said the department still is not facing up to the need to reform the entire system.

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