Maryland's reliance on putting juveniles in detention centers has led to severe overcrowding in deplorable conditions, juvenile justice advocates told a state legislative committee yesterday.
The advocates, who are pushing for several bills aimed at reforming the state Department of Juvenile Justice, also told the House Judiciary Committee that services in the detention centers do not meet the needs of the children.
According to the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, more than 7,000 children are placed in juvenile detention each year, and many of them are detained for nonviolent offenses.
"The truth is these kids shouldn't be in those kinds of institutions," said Mark Soler, executive director of the Youth Law Center. "They should be in facilities where they can get better treatment."
Soler singled out the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, which was built for 27 youths but has held as many as 100.
"It's really a preventable disaster. It doesn't have to be this way," he said. "We don't want to see a better Cheltenham. That's not what we want. What we want is a reduced number of kids who are locked up."
The intense scrutiny of the state's juvenile justice system has come after a series of stories in The Sun documented abuses at a Western Maryland boot camp for young offenders. Several people, including the department's secretary, were fired after the stories were published. Though one of the three boot camps was closed, problems in the department remain, say the advocates.
One particular concern is the disproportionate numbers of black youths who are detained. About 80 percent of the children at Cheltenham are black. In 1998, 39 percent of the department's complaints involved young blacks, yet 66 percent of the children in detention were African-American. In part this is because there are no objective standards for deciding who gets detained, Judge Martin P. Welch, chief of the Juvenile Court Division for Baltimore Circuit Court, told the committee.
Bishop L. Robinson, acting secretary of the department, attended the briefing but did not give a presentation. Afterward, he agreed that the state needs to rethink how it decides to detain juvenile offenders.
"We have to change the way we think, and we have to think results," he said. "The bottom line here is the number of people who succeed."
Also yesterday, a task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fix the state's troubled system for released delinquents heard from six people around the country whose message was similar to that of the juvenile advocates: Nearly everything wrong with Maryland's after-care system can be fixed with a touch of innovation and a load of political will.
The speakers outlined programs in their communities that address many of the shortcomings in Maryland's after-care system. Delinquents who are released from Maryland's juvenile jails often skip probation-related programs with no consequences from the department.
The task force is scheduled to meet Friday. The governor has asked for a report and recommendations for Maryland's after-care system by the end of the month.
Sun staff writer Todd Richissin contributed to this article.