NO ONE DISPUTES that the state's caretaking of its most wayward youths needs major reform. No one disputes that such massive change will take time. But it should take the absolute least time possible.
For the legions of young men and women who have trekked through the state's juvenile justice programs, the continually promised reforms already are too late. For the 55,000 who are "case files" at the Department of Juvenile Services - and the 2,500 or so directly under its supervision - it's fast closing in on too late. Will change come in time for the thousands who will join their ranks in the next year? Or the next?
The longer it takes, the more kids get hurt, as they fall further behind in schooling, socialization and learning to live in the big legal world. Their troubles affect all of us, from enjoying a movie in a crowded theater to walking city streets to having to pay for more prisons. Catch the trouble early, and there likely isn't trouble down the road.
Yet the litany of ills at the state's detention centers continues. Recent reports detailed crowding, understaffing and violence at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and alleged neglect and overuse of force at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. Last week, The Sun's Jeff Barker described summer overcrowding leading to "unaccustomed tensions" at the J. DeWeese Carter Youth Center in Chestertown, including fighting and repeated lockdowns.
The problems at Cheltenham, Hickey and other juvenile holding tanks predate the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But Mr. Ehrlich made juvenile justice reform a priority, promising to overhaul the system.
Mr. Ehrlich and the Department of Juvenile Services have made inroads, including maintaining or increasing the budget to bolster juvenile drug courts, hire more counselors and improve schooling in the state's detention centers. The department has boosted physical and mental health screening as kids enter the system and added to support for them after they return home.
It closed one of the five dorms at Cheltenham, transferring its youngest wards to the Maryland Youth Resource Center in Baltimore. And an Assembly-created position of independent juvenile monitor has been the source of the recent reports of continuing violence at Cheltenham and Hickey School.
The Baltimore city contingent at Cheltenham is scheduled to move to the new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street next month. The sooner it opens, the sooner the rest of Cheltenham's dorms may close for its renovation into a much-smaller facility. All the cottages were to be closed by July 1; the department says it still plans to close them this year - six months late - and that building is to start in 2007, pending continuing funding.
Reforming something as intricate and cumbersome as the juvenile justice system won't happen overnight. The state has its master plan; now it needs the details. Most important are a detailed timetable, fixed benchmarks - and a pledge that missing more deadlines won't be tolerated.