Someone to watch over DJS

April 07, 2005

MARYLAND'S beleaguered juvenile justice system needs more money, more transparency, better focus on the basics and a greater sense of urgency. A revised House bill would help with the last three, as well as enforce the idea that it also is the legislature's duty to ensure that the state helps, not harms, its wards.

It is not acceptable, for example, that the Department of Juvenile Services has been reminded repeatedly, for years, to fix the broken locks on cell doors at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. Just six weeks ago, two juveniles who slipped out of where they should have been threatened the ward staff and, choosing a door that locks, locked them in a room. That left these two juveniles loose and the others unprotected. Had someone been seriously hurt, he would have had strong grounds to sue the state for failing to repair something it knew about that put people at imminent risk. Similar risks have been reported regularly at other state detention facilities.

Kids, and staff, aren't safe. But quarterly and special reports from the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, a special warning memo from the U.S. Department of Justice and reports in local newspapers don't seem to have made the point clear to the department. A joint legislative oversight committee, which the reform bill would create, would have more clout, especially as it holds some of the department's purse strings and can influence personnel decisions.

The General Assembly sets the laws and should ensure that they are followed. DJS has been struggling for decades; blame for its failures is shared among all branches of government. As Maryland waits in limbo for the department to unveil its master reform plan next year, someone should be making sure the current crop of kids isn't getting even shorter shrift.

A well-grounded oversight panel also could well become a strong advocate for DJS' presumably ambitious reform plan. The department will need plenty of assistance in order to find the money and change the laws to follow a new, reformed path.

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