Reclaiming young offenders

March 30, 2004

BILLS THAT would reorganize the state's Department of Juvenile Services spell out a clear, coherent plan for kids who trip and fall into the system. They also spell out a commitment by legislators to back up the department.

That's good, because both the plan and the commitment need to be spelled out. While the administration, DJS officials and legislators on both sides of the aisle at last agree to agree on such goals as accountability, regionalization, after-care and smaller facilities, what's really needed is agreement that these worthy goals will make it off the page and into reality.

Last year's legislation to pay for expanded schooling at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School was passed unanimously, for example, but when it came time to spend the money this year, legislators blinked. At best, after the budget gets out of conference committee this month, the funding will be half what state law mandates.

The promises made in the current crop of bills are even more ambitious: separate, smaller facilities in each of five regions; a new program to recruit volunteer mentors for youths spending time in DJS facilities; and extensive support for kids after they return to their neighborhoods. Plus: counting DJS as its own separate school district under the state Department of Education, and the goal of the state's running all detention facilities.

The biggest challenge for the department is the requirement to develop extensive master plans. A 10-year blueprint for managing facilities would set up priorities and timetables for reforming or building new ones. Three-year service and programming plans, revised each year, would require DJS to report on its progress reaching set-into-code goals, including the number of youths in each of its programs and how well they are doing on such measures as test scores and recidivism rates.

The biggest challenge for the legislators is a commitment that once the Office of Management and Budget approves a facilities plan, the money will be there to make the changes. Consistently underfunded for a decade, the department likely will report deep needs, many expensive. And requirements such as the one that DJS take over the privately run Hickey School contain many costs, not all obvious or immediate. It's nearly impossible to predict the total costs, which could start rolling in as soon as the fiscal 2007 budget.

But the intent of the bills is worthy - and in the best interests of the child, the family and the community. An empathetic, whole-child approach that doesn't discount making good on your mistakes could help ensure that Maryland's children don't return again and again to its juvenile facilities. And that translates into long-term if not short-term cost-effectiveness for the state. DJS spends $192 a day on its charges; if it reached the level of a good-example state such as Missouri, it would be paying $103. And giving these kids the help they really need could keep them from making costly mistakes in the future: too-early parenthood, dropping out of school, landing in jail.

The table-setting bill, spelling out the goals and steps to reach them, has passed the state House and will be heard by a joint Senate committee tomorrow. An emergency bill setting timetables for reporting and limits on Hickey contracts has passed the Senate and will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Both should be passed - with a commitment to spend the money to make these changes as soon as possible.

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