Juvenile justice reforms approved

Plan for smaller, state-run facilities modeled after Mo. program

cost a worry

General Assembly

April 13, 2004|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly approved an extensive but slow makeover of Maryland's juvenile justice system yesterday, in hopes of emulating a lengthy reform effort in Missouri that has lowered recidivism even while cutting costs.

At the heart of the proposal are plans to eventually shrink or close the state's big detention centers, which have been beset for decades by abuse, mismanagement and a legacy of housing repeat offenders.

Those facilities, such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a detention center in Baltimore County now housing 260 youths, would have to be no larger than 48 beds, as would all state treatment centers for troubled youths. In addition, the state would run all the facilities itself. The Hickey School has been run by private, for-profit contractors for most of the past 13 years.

"I hate to use the word `sweeping,' because the effects of this legislation will occur later rather than sooner," said Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "But some of these things will really make a difference for the kids in the system."

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, the Baltimore County Democrat who introduced the proposals, fashioned them in hopes of remaking the state's juvenile system in the image of the one in Missouri, where reforms have cut the rate of repeat offenders to about 8 percent, at a daily cost per child of about $80. Maryland now spends about twice that much to detain and treat juveniles, with a recidivism rate of 70 percent to 80 percent.

But other than a state commitment to take over operation of the Hickey School in July 2007, the timetable of the biggest changes will depend largely on a master plan to be developed during the next 21 months by the Department of Juvenile Services, under Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.

Montague helped shape Zirkin's proposals, but his boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., will have to find a way to pay for them to meet the stated goal of making all the changes within the next five years. The reforms could save money in the long term, but implementing them could require new construction costing millions.

"There is no hiding what this is," Zirkin said. "There is going to be a fairly massive investment in capital operating expenses, and everybody understands that."

That is why some juvenile advocates worry about a seemingly minor portion of the legislation referring to the state's intentions to carry out the reforms "to the extent practicable." Zirkin insists the language doesn't offer a fiscal escape hatch. But education advocates were similarly convinced that the state's mandate for more schools spending under the Thornton plan was ironclad, only to discover that it wasn't.

"That language should not be construed to say we want the status quo," Montague said. "We want change. The governor wants change. But we have to be fiscally responsible, and we may not be able to do everything perfectly within the timetable."

As if to illustrate the dire conditions now facing the system, two teens who were housed at the Hickey School last year filed suit last week in Baltimore County Circuit Court against the Department of Juvenile Services and Hickey's former manager, the Youth Services International subsidiary of Correctional Services Corporation.

Seeking $50 million in damages, the suit alleges that staffers beat the youths off and on throughout April 2003, and threatened to kill their families if they "snitched." One staffer allegedly repeatedly slammed a 13-year-old's head into the wall because the teen had told another to report abuse.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article.

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