Save a buck, throw away a kid

March 10, 1996|By Sara Engram

WITH ALL the concern about disruptive students in Maryland's schools, you would think this state would celebrate a successful attempt to rehabilitate wayward teen-age boys. Instead, it closes the program down.

Juvenile Justice Secretary Stuart O. Simms knows as well as anyone how rare it is for a program like the Maryland Juvenile Boot Camp in Charles County to find a winning combination of success in its mission and acceptance by the community in which it is located.

Far from the rejection that often wells up against programs like this, the Doncaster residents who have watched the boot camp at work praise its effects on the youths who come for 90-day stays.

But three-months of structured living, military-style discipline, adult supervision and counseling is more than the state wants to pay to turn around a young person headed in the wrong direction. The chance of preventing young, nonviolent offenders from moving on to more serious crimes would require a $2.7 million investment next year.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening apparently doesn't see the connection between the immediate savings from discarding a successful program for juvenile offenders and the long-term costs in throwing away young lives.

Remember when pundits worried about a ''disposable society'' in which Americans blithely used and tossed away reusable materials like paper and plastic? Today, almost every community in the state has some kind of recycling effort.

How long will it be before we do something about our proclivity to write off the people at the fringes of our society? Poor families only a hard knock or two away from homelessness. Kids who aren't making it in school. Young people flirting with illegal activities.

We all know prevention is easier than cure. But time after time, we see that common-sense maxim pushed aside -- even when we know what works and what's worth spending money on.

Pay the price later

So the boot camp closes and alternatives for teen-age offenders (often the same kids dismissed by schools as ''disruptive'' students) shrink even more. Saving them from a life of crime seems to come at too high a price in money and effort.

Meanwhile, the men who were once merely juvenile offenders and are now full-fledged criminals are seeing their best hope for rehabilitation vanish. Not only can we not afford to try to save a youngster from a life of crime, we can't even provide a teacher behind bars to instill some hope and maybe a few skills to keep him from returning to jail once he's free.

It's cheaper to throw his hopes away.

Cheaper, that is, in the short run. A clearer view of the future would show that cutting a million here or there from the hopes and chances of those on the fringes is just a different way to hand a huge debt to the next generation.

This debt won't be one of deficit dollars. Instead, it will be discernible in the quality of life, the crime statistics, the health or decay visible in neighborhoods and communities around the state.

This is not an argument to spend more money, but rather to recognize when money is already being used effectively. The Charles County boot camp, teachers in prisons -- these kinds of costs can repay themselves many times over. Yet they become easy targets in a cost-cutting fervor.

We've learned there is a big benefit to be gained from recycling raw materials and, sooner or later, an unacceptable cost in simply throwing them away. Don't people deserve the same consideration?

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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