Reform juvenile justice in Md.

January 07, 2003|By Tara Andrews

OUTGOING GOV. Parris N. Glendening made some overdue changes to the state's juvenile justice system, and Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has vowed to reform it.

Here's his chance.

At the urging of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, the abusive Victor Cullen Academy was closed and there is stricter oversight of Department of Juvenile Justice facilities. In addition, a consolidated grant process prompted local jurisdictions to create community-based programs for at-risk youths.

But there are many unfinished tasks and critical problems that must be addressed immediately by the incoming Ehrlich administration:

Children are not safe. Despite promises that its decrepit buildings would be razed, the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County is still standing, still overcrowded and still very dangerous. Two staff members recently were suspended for running "fight clubs" that pitted Baltimore and Prince George's County youths against each other.

Further, children languish for months without treatment pending placement in an appropriate program. Now is the time to satisfy clear directives from the General Assembly and commitments from the outgoing administration that Cheltenham would be drastically downsized and restructured as a much more functional and humane regional facility.

Children in state juvenile facilities are not receiving an adequate education and are confronted with real barriers when they are released and try to re-enroll in their local schools.

Minorities, particularly African-American and Latino males, are still grossly over-represented at every punitive stage of the process and underrepresented in treatment services and rehabilitative programs.

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, a large, purportedly multiservice juvenile detention facility that is to open shortly, could be nothing more than a 144-bed maximum security cage for troubled youths unless the Department of Juvenile Justice commits to limiting the number of beds filled and ensuring that appropriate youth assessments and services are provided.

Some of these problems require legislative changes, but most can be eliminated with changes in budget allocation and public policy. The incoming administration has an excellent opportunity to lead and improve the way youths in trouble are treated.

So much is already clear. Large institutions perpetuate bad behavior and breed chaos; smaller, well-staffed, home-like facilities make for treatment and education. Locked, secure detention and placements should be reserved for the most serious offenders and should be used only so long as it is beneficial for the youth and the community.

The wrap-around approach - an array of services that address the whole child and the child's family and not just the offense - works. If given adequate resources, community-based programs can serve the majority of children who encounter the juvenile justice system without putting children or the community at risk.

Mr. Ehrlich has promised to appoint a Department of Juvenile Justice deputy secretary whose sole responsibility will be to address the overrepresentation of minorities within the system.

But promises must be quickly followed by deeds. The Ehrlich administration cannot afford to repeat the failures of previous administrations. A new Department of Juvenile Justice secretary must have the full support of superiors, with the funds and autonomy necessary to do the job. Accountability must be embraced. And when bad things happen (and they will) the only right answer is thoughtful yet decisive action.

Bad things are still happening. Children continue to be subjected to violence, minority youths are tracked into the adult corrections system and vulnerable and troubled youth are denied services that simply must be provided by one of the wealthiest states in the country.

Our hope is that the new administration will take the road not taken often enough - the one that leads away from wasteful and ineffective reactions and toward cost-effective and rehabilitative responses.

Tara Andrews is chair of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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