Dysfunctional facilities for youth must be fixed

Faster track: Promises of accountability, reform and change must produce quick results.

November 30, 2001

ADVOCATES FOR young offenders urge state officials to close the Victor Cullen Academy, a juvenile corrections facility in Frederick.

That plea comes in the wake of reported staff abuse of inmates, poor physical conditions and lack of services.

All of these conditions are intolerable.

In the long term, Maryland's juvenile facilities must better reflect the reality that incarceration is not appropriate for many of the system's wards.

Some 60 percent of Cullen's current residents pose only low or moderate risk to the community.

By any reasonable standard, locked facilities should be reserved for the most violent and dangerous offenders.

We emphatically agree -- but more importantly, so does Juvenile Services Secretary Bishop Robinson.

He says recent reports were based on year-old data. The current atmosphere at Cullen is much improved, he said, because action has been taken against abusive guards. In one case, an official was dismissed.

But discussions of precisely how many young inmates were assaulted and when, or just how bad the physical conditions are, miss the point.

If the goal is rehabilitation and correction -- not to speak of humane concern -- no assaults at all has to be the goal.

That objective will be more easily reached when a new system of risk assessment has been fully implemented.

Mr. Robinson agrees that many young offenders shouldn't be incarcerated at all, a conclusion that has guided his work since he took over the troubled department 18 months ago.

"Kids do better in the long term when they are treated in the community," he says.

Thus, the secretary and the reformers agree on important fundamental points. They disagree on timing and method.

The critics want Victor Cullen closed outright.

Mr. Robinson, who has 50 years of law enforcement and corrections experience, qualifies as an expert. He may recommend closing Cullen when he delivers a report to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend at the end of December.

Or he may suggest adopting a variation of the approach at Cheltenham, another problem-plagued institution.

There and at two other locations, the state will establish relatively small, high-security facilities for offenders judged to be of high risk. On the same campuses, quarters will be provided for inmates who don't need lock down, but require close supervision or whose life circumstances won't allow placement in community-based programs.

This approach will allow the state to maintain institutions in most areas of the state. If families are involved -- a critical element of enlightened corrections -- they'll be closer at hand.

Mr. Robinson may recommend closing Cullen. But conservation of scarce resources will be a primary factor in his decision.

He has been able to secure federal grants allowing him to hire more community corrections workers to aid young people who are being sent back to their communities. He's working on "bridges" between prison-like confinement and the schools. He's looking for ways to provide the mental health services many young people need.

He and Lt. Gov. Townsend, however, will continue to face criticism -- notwithstanding these complexities -- if they don't produce improvements soon.

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