State must address festering juvenile justice problems

November 01, 2001|By Tara Andrews

THE MARYLAND Juvenile Justice Coalition has spent several years pushing for meaningful reform of a broken system marked by boot camp scandals, abuses of youth and overall ineffectiveness.

The gratifying news is that there has been some improvement, though incomplete. The challenge is to build on good beginnings while moving aggressively to fix what is still glaringly broken.

Recent reports show that the population of the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County has dropped by a third, from 263 in February to 176 last month. Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop Robinson has promised there will be no more than 48 youths on the site by April. The decision was made last year to close Cheltenham, the state's oldest detention facility.

Also heartening was Mr. Robinson's recent statement that the Victor Cullen Academy, a big institution in Frederick County, probably should be closed because it may be unnecessary. Instead, he said, Maryland should serve more youth in smaller local facilities or in community-based programs that are more effective at reducing recidivism. We agree.

But positive developments do not negate festering problems. Although the number of youths detained before adjudication has dropped substantially, more than 100 youths "pending placement" continue to languish in detention facilities for months after adjudication without receiving much-needed services such as appropriate education and mental health and substance-abuse treatment. The department must greatly increase its efforts to move these youths into community-based programs or other proper placements.

Moreover, conditions in Maryland's juvenile justice facilities remain deplorable. Although the department has uncovered incidents of staff abuse of youths and other violations that affect youths' safety, it has been unable to effectively address longstanding, egregious problems.

Reports of a "fight club," in which staff at Victor Cullen arranged fights between residents, are the latest in the stream of problematic conditions that plague our state's locked facilities - including lack of trained personnel; inadequate, even dirty, medical supplies; and lack of appropriate education and services. The best safeguard against dangerous and inhumane conditions in juvenile facilities is meaningful citizen oversight, an obvious solution that the administration and department have either failed to champion or opposed.

Youth of color continue to be over-represented at every point in the adjudicatory process, from first encounters with the police, to interactions with prosecutors and judges, to eventual confinement in a juvenile facility. Our state's leaders must make the elimination of racial disparity in Maryland's justice system a priority and vigorously pursue strategies to address disproportionate minority confinement.

Finally, supporting community-based services in theory is different from fully funding them in practice. More money needs to be diverted from large, ineffective institutions and funneled into communities so they can build and sustain the capacity to serve youths and their families. While the state currently has plans to develop a system of community-based programs, the move toward the expansion of such programs has come far too slowly.

The department is to be applauded for reducing the number of youths unnecessarily detained without jeopardizing public safety. Current plans to develop new community programs are promising and need to be expedited.

But conditions in our state's facilities continue to be unacceptable, and much more needs to be done before Maryland's juvenile justice reforms can be considered a success.

Tara Andrews, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, is chair of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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