Juvenile injustice from the top down

The real abuse of delinquent youth is the failure of the governor and the General Assembly to provide sufficient resources

March 26, 2000|By Jack Nado

A16-YEAR-OLD was placed in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice because she used marijuana and hard alcohol on a daily basis and occasionally used PCP and crack. She also sold drugs and became a prostitute to support her drug habit.

She was denied residential drug treatment by private service providers and her appeal to the state was rejected because of her multiple mental health and behavioral problems. In Maryland, unlike other states, even if a judge orders a teen-ager into drug treatment, a private service provider can still turn him or her away.

This teen is only one example of the thousands of delinquent youth who don't receive appropriate treatment or punishment from the state. Each year, about 40,000 young people enter the Maryland juvenile justice system. Of those, 60 percent are assigned to programs for appropriate treatment or punishment. About a third of those, however, will not receive it. They will be put into any program that has room for them, released early or assigned to a program without suitable services or supervision.

How best to deal with these young people is a multifaceted problem, but it is not difficult to understand. Before these troubled children arrive on DJJ's doorstep, they first wind their way through the schools, health and social services agencies and the courts. Many of them have been abused or neglected, come from dysfunctional families, have had prior involvement with social service and mental health agencies, and test three years or more below school grade level.

Families, the community and other agencies cannot abandon these youth to DJJ. To expect one agency to solve the juvenile crime problem will only perpetuate the state's failure to support its most troubled children.

Better oversight

The state must do a better job of managing these young people. Maryland doesn't meet American Correctional Association standards for staffing. In community-service programs, probation and after-care, caseloads are at least 25 percent higher. Workers in larger jurisdictions may have as many as 50 cases at a time; in rural areas, workers may have fewer cases, but they are spread over several counties.

Standards for supervision and meetings are set by available staff hours rather than the needs of the children.

Both residential and community mental health and drug treatment are in short supply, and little help is provided by other agencies. In fact, a portion of DJJ's budget pays for community addiction counselors and about 95 beds for residential drug treatment because managed-care organizations have reduced the number of private beds paid for by Medicaid.

Young people often must wait 60 days in detention centers for a spot in a residential treatment program, and as many as 20 percent of youth, most of them minorities, living in reform schools need treatment but aren't receiving it. Still, the state Health Resource Planning Commission has not increased available space in treatment programs.

Seldom are there swift and certain consequences or treatment in the state system. On any given day, there are more than 200 cases where judges have ordered treatment or confinement but kids await placement 30 days or longer.

Maryland officials can't claim that they didn't know about problems in the juvenile justice system. In the past two years, reports on the mental health and drug treatment needs of arrestees were released to the governor and legislature. In addition, DJJ's three-year plans and budget requests have repeatedly and comprehensively addressed the needs.

Lack of commitment

But state officials' focus has not been on correcting problems at DJJ.

I was brought to the department by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend after 18 years at the U.S. Justice Department. I was quickly reprimanded for being too aggressive in dealing with Budget Secretary Frederick Puddester. I was reined in when trying to get other agencies to provide assistance. My open-door policy with advocates and the media brought criticism. DJJ Secretary Gilberto de Jesus took away my authority and excluded me from the budget process. I was then fired, clearly not for problems at DJJ, but because contrary to Gov. Parris Glendening and Chief of Staff Major Riddick's wishes, I exposed problems.

Bureaucrats and DJJ are easy targets for blame and purges. Such finger-pointing relieves those legislators and top state officials of their anxiety and guilt for losing so many Maryland youth to drugs, violence and crime.

But the problems remain, as well as the fact that for DJJ to keep within its deficient budget for the past four years, it has had to terminate, reduce or delay implementation of programs, leave vacant positions unfilled and release young people earlier than planned from residential programs.

The real abuse of delinquent youth is the failure of the governor and the General Assembly to provide sufficient resources. They claim DJJ has not justified the need.

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