Same old song

May 10, 2006

The first major report of the new independent monitor for juvenile services in Maryland sounds a lot like reviews from previous investigators - overcrowded facilities, understaffing, gang fights, lack of educational and recreational services and even lack of basic toiletries. It's a dismal reminder that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration is shamefully behind in making long-overdue improvements.

This report is all the more devastating because it comes from Katherine A. Perez, an Ehrlich appointee who has only been on the job since January. Though much of the research pre-dates her tenure, she has been following up on conditions that existed as of December 2005.

Youth centers are taking in more "hardened and challenging" youths, according to the report, but facilities and staff of the Department of Juvenile Services are generally not keeping pace. The report describes centers with dirty kitchens, badly worn floors, rotten window casings and too few suicide-proof beds, as well as staffers taking care of more than twice the desirable number of youths.

DJS officials insist that more-aggressive recruiting and training are improving the staff-to-youth ratios at some facilities and that better intake and screening procedures are matching more youths with appropriate services. While these improvements are welcome, they are merely incremental.

What's needed and what has been promised by the Ehrlich administration are more community-based programs that keep troubled youths close to supportive networks of families and neighbors, who can work with experts to help turn kids around. What's missing - from a governor who made juvenile justice reform a centerpiece of his campaign - is a much more urgent response to a lingering problem.

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