Thinking smart on juvenile justice

February 21, 2000|By Vincent Schiraldi and James McComb

OVER THE PAST several months, Marylanders have had serious concerns over the state of juvenile justice in the Free State.

Following a series of scathing articles in The Sun about conditions in Maryland's boot camps, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend fired five top administrators at the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), closed the state's boot camps, established several task forces, and allocated additional money for improvements.

While these are commendable steps, little has changed in the daily lives of the youths detained in Maryland's crowded and antiquated juvenile facilities. It will take more than money and task forces to fix what's broken.

More than 7,000 children were admitted to Maryland's detention facilities last year, a state record. Although violent youth crime declined by 16 percent over the past two years, more youths are now detained in Maryland than in 1997.

But the hammer of detention has not fallen equally on Maryland's youths. While African-American males make up 17 percent of Maryland's youth population and 39 percent of youth arrests, 81 percent of those confined in the state's most notorious detention facility -- the Cheltenham Youth Center -- are African-American, according to state figures.

In October, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition sponsored a tour of Cheltenham, which we both attended. The fear on the youths' faces was palpable. Tensions were particularly high in two cottages designed for 27 youths -- which housed over 100 each.

The effects of crowding were evident in every facet of the facility's operation. Kids talked of being beaten by overburdened staff or being left to urinate in their rooms when staff were unable to attend to them. One youth had his jaw broken in the bathroom where there was no staff supervision. Last April, a melee broke out when a large number of youths were required to sit in the day room as punishment for the acts of a few.

The youths told of agonizing waits -- up to a year sometimes -- before they are transferred to treatment facilities. And unlike adults, this is "dead time," not counting toward what they must ultimately spend in placement. Thirty percent of the facility's population sits awaiting placement, ratcheting up the frustration.

Fortunately, a raft of legislation has been authored this year by Del. Kenneth Montague (D-Baltimore) and Del. Selima Marriott (D-Baltimore) to improve conditions for youths in Maryland's juvenile justice system and reduce unnecessary incarcerations. One bill would require the Department of Juvenile Justice to place youths in treatment within a week of their adjudication.

Another would create standards for detention, helping to render crowded, understaffed, inadequately programmed facilities a thing of the past. These standards -- developed jointly by DJJ staff and members of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition -- would be some of the most comprehensive in the nation.

A third bill establishes an advisory council to make recommendations on how to reduce the disproportionate confinement of minority youths, a problem plaguing the juvenile justice system.

And a fourth bill would create an oversight commission and network of ombudsmen to monitor all youths in locked facilities in the state of Maryland.

Maryland's juvenile justice system needs an overhaul, and this legislation, along with reform initiatives, is a good start.

In the year 2001, a new Baltimore detention facility is expected to open, posing an opportunity and a challenge. The department plans to keep the antiquated Cheltenham facility open, and add more than $7 million annually to its budget to expand detention by 144 new beds. This despite the fact that most of the youth in Cheltenham are from Baltimore City, 88 percent of kids admitted to Cheltenham are detained on nonviolent charges, and juvenile crime is on the decline.

The legislature and governor must now ensure that, prior to opening the Baltimore facility, the department implements a plan to reduce the number of nonviolent youth it houses and to place them in community programs that can rehabilitate them, hold them accountable and keep the public safe. Then, the governor and the General Assembly should allocate funding to raze Cheltenham and replace it with a smaller, modern facility to serve the needs of Prince George's County youth, who make up the bulk of the remainder of Cheltenham's population.

In other words, it's time that the state of Maryland got smart, and not just tough, on juvenile crime.

Vincent Schiraldi and James McComb are members of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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