Close Cheltenham as youth detention site

Abuses: Overcrowded center is dangerous, a fire hazard and diverts limited state resources.

March 10, 2001

IT LOOKS as if the movement to close the troubled Cheltenham Youth Center in southern Prince George's County is going to succeed. It should have happened years ago.

This is the state's largest and most dangerous facility for delinquent youths, who are detained there while awaiting trial or placement in a treatment program.

It's a symbol of the Glendening administration's disgraceful failure to deal with juvenile delinquency.

In the past year, one youth has been stabbed by a state employee and another gang-raped. A poorly trained staff is inattentive or hostile to the needs of kids. State fire marshals have repeatedly declared the place a fire trap. There's no semblance of counseling.

Some 260 youths, most from Baltimore, are jammed into the overcrowded center. Eight out of 10 are African-American, even though black youths make up only 31 percent of juvenile arrests. How coincidental that Cheltenham was built 129 years ago as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys.

The buildings must be demolished. And the $3.5 million a year wasted on Cheltenham should be spent on quality community programs for delinquents.

Bishop L. Robinson, the respected secretary of juvenile services, said this week he intends to shrink Cheltenham's population from 260 to 48, starting when Baltimore's new juvenile detention center opens next March. More delinquents will be placed on electronic monitoring as an alternative, too.

But the destruction of Cheltenham won't occur for another 2 1/2 years. Such a leisurely schedule is unacceptable. There's no reason the governor cannot find money to accelerate construction of two small replacement cottages.

The idea should be to place most nonviolent offenders in community treatment programs. Violent youths should, indeed, be detained but at small, modern centers with well-trained staff.

Mr. Robinson has his hands full trying to reinvent his department. Far more money must be diverted to community-based efforts, such as group homes, shelter care, detention foster care, intensive supervision and evening reporting programs. Drug and alcohol counseling are lacking.

Unfortunately, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has not given Mr. Robinson the level of financial support he deserves. The secretary has a tough job in steering a resistant staff onto the road to reform. Shuttering Cheltenham quickly, and erecting smaller detention cottages would be a long-overdue step in the right direction.

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