An ounce of prevention

March 03, 2006

If a youth gets in serious trouble in Maryland, the state can confine him in a secure facility where he can basically learn how to become a better criminal. Despite promises to the contrary, the state still puts too little emphasis on trying to keep at-risk youths from getting in trouble in the first place. The General Assembly is trying to bring more structure to the state's prevention efforts, and the governor's office should make a real commitment to provide adequate funds.

Last year, the Department of Juvenile Services received about 55,000 referrals for delinquents. Youth advocates insist that most were simply sent back to their communities, getting little or no guidance, counseling, support or treatment. It seems to be only after troubled youths have multiple arrests or commit serious offenses that the system takes them seriously - by locking them up or sending them to a residential facility such as a group home, where help with mental illness, substance abuse or other ailments may or may not be available.

Legislation being considered by the House of Delegates tries to redirect the state's juvenile justice focus from detention or residential placement to programs that can help youths change course for the better. The House bill would designate the Governor's Office for Children as a statewide coordinating council that would work with state-level departments, including DJS, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Education, and push for existing local management boards to support more community-based services designed to help potential delinquents and their parents.

Arlene F. Lee, executive director of Mr. Ehrlich's Office for Children, agrees with the goals, but not all the details, of the House bill. She points out that her office is spending about $8 million on prevention programs through the local boards, with an additional nearly $1 million for West Baltimore, where there is an urgent need. Advocates concur with the House bill's directive that the governor spend at least $10 million specifically for delinquency prevention and diversion programs in 2008, pulling together funds from federal programs and other public and private sources.

Some details of the House bill may need tweaking, but the focus is right. The proposed fiscal 2007 budget for DJS is $230 million, an awfully heavy pound of cure.

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