Community detention

October 27, 2003

AS AN ALTERNATIVE to holding wayward juveniles in detention centers while still making sure they get to their court hearings, community detention works. It's unfortunate, though, that it's the state's only alternative.

For the kids, the choice between checking in with a juvenile services worker a couple times a day or sitting in a detention center stewing for weeks is a no-brainer. Even at its most invasive - wearing electronic-fence anklets in addition to having social-worker check-ins - the benefits of staying in their own homes, their own schools and their own clothes far outweigh the current residential alternatives. And for some kids, the social worker is one of the few stable, reliable adults in their lives, at least for this short term.

For the state's Department of Juvenile Services and for taxpayers, community detention eases the strain on overcrowded facilities and thin pocketbooks. It costs $156 per day to hold a child in a state detention facility but just $20 per day to monitor one at home, according to DJS - a difference of $26.2 million in the fiscal year that ended in June.

More important, it helps fulfill the department's stated goal of ensuring the least-restrictive placement for each child while also ensuring that the neighborhood stays safe. Last week, 547 juveniles were on community detention - 55 percent of all DJS-detained kids. About 125 of them were in Baltimore.

Statewide, the success rate for community detention last year was 84 percent for those on electronic and worker monitoring, and 77 percent for those on the less-intrusive worker monitoring alone. Success means the juvenile stays out of trouble or within DJS's grasp during monitoring.

While some courts still discount the lower levels of monitoring, it often is sounder to start lower and leave room for juveniles who break a rule while testing limits to face stricter punishment still short of detention. That lessens the chance a minor infraction will send them far away from home.

Of course, home detention is imperfect. Some kids cut the anklet or violate their boundaries, which are monitored by a device they call "the box." Judges and DJS need to be vigilant to ensure that the correct kids are candidates for home monitoring. The department and city police also must continue a year-old program of teaming up twice a week to seek out any detainees who go AWOL.

All must keep in mind that the alternative - keeping the youths in locked facilities - is also imperfect: One teen in a high-profile case was due in court last week to decide whether he should stay in the adult system or be sent into the juvenile system, but he wasn't transported from lockup, so the case was postponed.

Juvenile services and other state and local agencies still must work to extend the detention-diversion options, including day and evening reporting centers, intensive community supervision, residential facilities that don't lock kids in and temporary foster care. It is unfortunate that technical noncriminal violations of probation and monitoring often result in the ultimate punishment - the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School or the Cheltenham Youth Facility, for example.

To have one working option is fine, but it doesn't fit all kids. More choices are needed.

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