Revamp juvenile justice -- now

Model: Missouri's progressive, effective system bears emulation.

April 27, 2003|By Richard A. Mendel | Richard A. Mendel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As he sat down to sign 147 new bills last Tuesday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. placed at the top of the pile a bill to reform the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. Ehrlich heralded the legislation as a "cultural shift," a new era in which young offenders will be treated as "savables."

In truth, though, the new measure will save few troubled teens. It provides a new name for Maryland's youth corrections agency, a new assistant secretary for minority justice, and a bit of new money for mental health counselors, drug courts, and program research.

Forget "new era." Think "missed opportunity."

Though Ehrlich often supported get-tough approaches as a legislator, he adopted a progressive juvenile justice platform in his campaign for governor.

In the General Assembly, the juvenile justice reform bug bit both parties. In December, three delegates flew off to study juvenile programs in Missouri, widely regarded as the best in the nation. Buoyed by that trip, Democrats and Republicans jointly submitted more than a dozen juvenile-reform bills.

Suddenly, everyone was singing from the same, youth-friendly hymnal: Up with prevention and early intervention for troubled teens. Down with excessive incarceration. Education and mental health services must improve. Unequal treatment of minority youth has to end. Time to rethink "adult time for adult crime."

Three years after the Sun exposed pervasive brutality and incompetence in Maryland's juvenile boot camp programs, this harmonic convergence augured well for long-overdue reform.

Yet, when the time came to make new laws, the would-be reformers mainly offered isolated pilot projects and procedural reforms (General Assembly) or vague principles for change (Ehrlich administration) - nothing strong or specific enough to clean up what remains a dysfunctional juvenile justice bureaucracy.

Delegates Bobby A. Zirkin and Anthony O'Donnell - chairman and ranking member of the juvenile justice subcommittee - teamed up to propose six pilot projects, many based on models in Missouri.

The delegates were rightly impressed with the "Show Me" state. Unlike Maryland, abuse by staff is unheard of in Missouri's small treatment-oriented youth corrections centers and day treatment programs. Fights between teens are rare, and when Missouri's juvenile detainees act up they are not handcuffed, shackled, or locked in isolation; they're counseled.

Two-thirds of Missouri's youth offenders improve their academic skills faster than the typical public school student; they clearly benefit from the state's regimen of self-exploration and group process. "The kids really understood what the program was all about," says David Addison, a Baltimore County juvenile defender who took part in the Missouri tour. "They were able to express it a lot better than a lot of the staff could explain it here in Maryland."

Most important, only 8 percent Missouri youngsters released from juvenile correctional facilities are incarcerated as adults within three years - compared with 30 percent of juvenile offenders released in Maryland. Yet Missouri spends less per capita on juvenile corrections than Maryland.

The Missouri model is well worth replicating. But isolated pilot programs will never create a Missouri-style system.

Ken Montague, the moderate Democrat whom Ehrlich appointed as juvenile justice secretary, reported at a March 6 legislative hearing that his department already tried day treatment centers, one of the proposed pilot initiatives. The demonstration failed in four of six sites. Likewise, a three-site test of "evening reporting centers" closed down in 2002 after disappointing results.

"It doesn't work in Maryland" has become an unofficial mantra for juvenile justice officials comfortable with the status quo.

Montague reiterated the Ehrlich team's promising themes for juvenile justice, but few concrete proposals followed. The biggest funding commitment for juvenile justice reform in the governor's budget - $7.5 million for state education officials to take over youth-correctional classrooms - went not to Montague's department but to the state education department. (The request was deferred until next year.) Montague still is widely respected, but his slow start is disquieting. Montague told the General Assembly in January that the agency is less troubled than he expected, and several top deputies from the prior administration remain at their posts.

Patience and well-meaning half-measures will not cure Maryland's ailing juvenile justice culture. Good intentions must be attached to bold steps that shake up the bureaucracy and that provide troubled young people with more effective support and supervision.

What are these bold measures? Here are three ideas that might spark the needed transformation.

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