Play DJS straight

April 15, 2005

THIS YEAR'S budget crisis at the state Department of Juvenile Services isn't unexpected, isn't the first and won't be the last. It could be the next-to-last, though, if DJS and its handler, the Ehrlich administration, come clean on how much the system really costs.

The department has had a structural deficit for years. It spends far more than budgeted to place delinquent youngsters in group homes and in far-flung private facilities to give them the specialized care they need.

While we agree with the department, the administration, the advocates and most of the nation that treating children closer to home, often in smaller settings, is preferable, until DJS builds up that new infrastructure, it has to make do with what it has. That means it will continue to spend a great deal on "out-of-home placements."

This deficit had been masked by siphoning money intended to run new facilities, especially the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Because their openings were delayed, for various reasons, year after year, money meant to pay staff salaries at the new buildings could be spent elsewhere. When the city's center, and two smaller centers, finally opened in the past fiscal year, that "float" disappeared - and the emergency appropriations had to start. It doesn't take an accountant to figure the same would happen this budget cycle, and next.

So what does the administration do? It slashes the fiscal 2006 budget for out-of-home placements from $30.9 million to $20.1 million. That's a big part of why, while DJS is expected to be $16 million over budget in the fiscal year ending June 30, legislative analysts predict it will be over by up to $31 million the next.

The department says it is working to reform its ways, but its job is made nearly impossible by this continuing debt. If DJS can't pay for what it's doing now, how can it pay to start up and run a parallel system for the time it takes to make such a transition? If the state is fudging how much the system costs, how will it know how much it has saved when it does enact the new system?

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pledged to overhaul the state's juvenile delinquency system, a very worthy goal. But this budget shell game doesn't serve the purpose, and it certainly doesn't help these kids.

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