Youths at risk

October 10, 2006

Areport by the U.S. Justice Department finds that conditions in a Baltimore youth detention center are so bad that the constitutional rights of juveniles confined there are being violated. Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, which runs the facility, insists that many of the lapses cited in the year-old report have been fixed. That may be so, but there is plenty more to do.

The Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which opened in 2003, has 144 beds for boys ages 12 to 18. Some of the youths housed at the center are waiting for their day in court, but others have been to court and are waiting to go to a facility or program that can meet their needs, whether for behavioral, mental health, substance abuse or other issues.

As part of its periodic oversight duties, Justice Department consultants visited the center a year ago and found that youth-on-youth violence was nearly 50 percent higher than the national average for such facilities. The previously unreleased report, obtained by The Sun's Greg Garland, pointed to inadequate staffing and an environment in which some youths felt free to use chairs, makeshift knives and other objects to inflict harm on others.

Despite apparent contrary assurances to state officials from the consultants, Justice's letter sent with the report to DJS in August made it clear that conditions and practices at the center violated the residents' federal constitutional and statutory rights. The letter specifically cited the center's failure to adequately protect youths from violence by others or from suicide, to provide adequate behavioral health care services and to provide adequate special-education services.

DJS officials insist they have satisfactorily addressed many of the government's concerns. They point to increased staffing levels, particularly direct-care staff, that allow DJS to provide better monitoring so that youth injuries have declined and suicide watches have increased. But that's simply not enough. The report recognizes many of these improvements, and still finds that more staffing and services are needed to satisfy legal standards and to help confined youths.

DJS is still operating with too few resources and insufficient alternatives to compensate for closing the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. Although incremental progress at the Baltimore youth center is welcome, it's only a finger in the dike.

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