Juvenile justice reform needs better blueprint

March 06, 2006|By CAMERON MILES AND SHARON RUBINSTEIN

It's widely understood that ambitious politicians dream about seeing their names on a building or two. But in juvenile justice reform, the opportunity for lasting change and a productive legacy isn't mainly about bricks and mortar. That's why, after years of waiting, the state Department of Juvenile Services Facilities Master Plan that landed on legislators' desks this year dropped with a disheartening thud.

Policymakers have long acknowledged that Maryland's juvenile justice system is broken. The problems have ranged from scandalous physical abuse to chronic ineffectiveness, and have been amply documented by the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, the news media and the U.S. Department of Justice.

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was a candidate for governor, he noted the disarray and declared juvenile justice reform a top priority. Since his election, revelations about conditions that threaten youths' safety and well-being have continued. With pressure from advocates and the legislature, the Department of Juvenile Services two years ago began a planning process that has culminated in two reports: a "Gap Analysis" that appeared in January 2005, and the recently released Facilities Master Plan.

The eagerly anticipated "Part 2" Facilities Master Plan is an expensive disappointment - sketchy in many particulars and wrongheaded in others.

It would cost $111 million for buildings constructed over a 10-year period, and that figure doesn't even include land-acquisition costs. Many of the locations are in the same remote areas long decried as inaccessible for families and counterproductive to youths' community reintegration.

Operating costs aren't considered in this plan, so it is by definition not comprehensive. And despite a recognition of the need to shift toward a full complement of community-based services, when the governor's budget for the coming fiscal year is compared with the capital construction spending plan, the number of secure residential facilities for juveniles and nonresidential, community-based services has changed little.

In Missouri, large-scale, prison-like "training schools" have given way to a system that focuses on treatment, relies on well-trained staff, and has a graduated range of small placements for youths. Community-based day treatment centers are an integral part of the mix. This approach has proved less costly than most states' programs and more effective, with a recidivism rate of less than 30 percent, far lower than the estimated 80 percent rate for Maryland.

The basic principles of juvenile justice reform are clear: Institutional settings don't work to rehabilitate; savings realized from closing ineffective, large-scale facilities should be shifted to support community-based prevention and intervention services; too many children are locked up when they don't need to be; and there should be a range of available alternatives to detention for children awaiting adjudication.

When children do need to be held in secure facilities, they should be housed in small facilities and kept as close to their home communities as possible. A continuum of detention and placement alternatives also should be available regionally. Providing appropriate educational, supportive and aftercare services is critical to rehabilitation efforts.

These principles, replicated in Missouri, have been on the lips of not just advocates but also many policymakers and administration officials who have visited that state. So how do we turn fine words into reality? We need more details that support with dollars the agreed-upon priorities. At the recent briefing on the Facilities Master Plan, the explanation for many choices was, disappointingly, "cost-containment." But we shouldn't be building on what is unsuitable ground.

Cheltenham Youth Facility, once the notorious Cheltenham House of Reformation for Colored Boys, should be shuttered, and no, we should not put a new 96-bed facility in its place. Legislation passed two years ago suggested a size limit of 48 beds for detention and committed facilities. Why are we disregarding it?

If the concept of "regionalization" is to mean anything, the master plan can't lump counties as far apart as Montgomery in suburban Washington and Garrett in Western Maryland in the same service district.

Often forgotten is this: The majority of youths in the juvenile justice system are there for nonviolent offenses. If we are serious about offering them a second chance, let's get cracking and do it right.

Cameron Miles and Sharon Rubinstein are community outreach director and communications director, respectively, of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. Ms. Rubinstein's e-mail is serubins@acy.org.

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