A model for Maryland

September 06, 2005

MARYLAND AND CONNECTICUT both have broken juvenile justice systems, and both have Republican governors who say they want to fix those systems. But Gov. M. Jodi Rell has put muscle behind her rhetoric, riding her department to give her a clear plan she could sell, and working hard -- inside and outside the governor's mansion in Hartford -- to sell it. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should borrow a page from her book.

Connecticut in 2001 opened a $57 million dorm for up to 240 juveniles, then realized that the jail's design and size guaranteed it would fail in its mission to turn kids back toward a productive path.

In April, Governor Rell had been in the job only nine months when she requested a plan that included closing the beleaguered training school. And she got it, just four months later, with specifics: number and styles of facilities the state should build to serve the various juvenile populations region by region, how much the buildings would cost, when each general planning and building step would be completed, when the state's failed juvenile jail would close for good. Now state workers are nailing down what they need from the legislature to get it done -- and talking with legislators about how best to do it. Systemwide changes could be complete in as few as three years.

For more than a century, Maryland has sent wayward children to its Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, where care has violated the constitutional rights of the children. In July, Mr. Ehrlich announced that within four months he would close Hickey, the only state facility for its hardest-case juveniles. Now state workers are scrambling to find placements for these kids and the others housed there; officials concede that not all children can leave Hickey by Nov. 1.

Thus, three years after entering office pledging to "reform juvenile justice now," Governor Ehrlich has a mess on his hands, with no timetable for steady, systemwide change and a legislature angered by a Department of Juvenile Services budget that said nothing about closing Hickey and included nowhere near enough money for private services -- even before the governor decided to add Hickey's nearly 200 youths to private rolls.

Of course, the Connecticut plan has its detractors and debaters of the details, but at least they have something to chew on. Maryland officials' vague talk just ratchets up the anxiety. Where will Maryland's most troubled kids live? And how many years will it take to decide that the 18-month-old, 144-bed detention wing at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, built to look like a prison but not as safe or helpful, can't work?

Strong leadership selling a plan with specifics and a timetable, working with legislators and communities, telling the public what's going on. It should be done here.

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