Stalled justice for juveniles

November 06, 2006

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2002, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was highly critical of Maryland's dysfunctional juvenile justice system and promised long-overdue reforms. But, as governor, Mr. Ehrlich's record has been decidedly mixed - some good ideas thwarted by inadequate implementation and resources. Any high hopes that advocates, parents and even troubled youths might have had that Mr. Ehrlich would make significant changes in the entrenched bureaucracy and culture at the Department of Juvenile Services have been dashed by inertia. The state's troubled youths deserve better.

Recent reports of staffing problems in the state's adult prisons reconfirm shortcomings throughout the criminal justice system. But the unfinished juvenile justice work is particularly disappointing. Mr. Ehrlich said he would create a "child-first culture" at DJS; he installed Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a former Democratic state legislator, as head of the agency; and he talked about trying to save more youthful offenders rather than simply punishing them.

But budget shortfalls and a seeming loss of will have stalled the once-ambitious reform agenda. Consequently, many of the same troubles that have long plagued DJS have continued during the Ehrlich era - documented in reports by federal officials and independent state monitors - including overcrowding and understaffing at youth detention facilities and a failure to shift quickly enough from locking kids up to hooking them up to appropriate services in community-based residential facilities.

With some additional funding in the past year, DJS officials have tried to hire more staff, provide them with better training, and get the right help for more young offenders, but their efforts have still fallen far short of what's needed. It remains to be seen whether a 10-year DJS master plan that outlines a sensible vision of smaller, community-based and service-rich facilities will be adequately funded. Some ineffective programs at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School were eliminated last year, but many of the services and alternative programs that were supposed to fill the gap have not materialized. In addition, too many youths whose cases have been adjudicated remain in pretrial detention centers waiting to be shipped out of state to programs that should be more readily available in Maryland.

Mr. Ehrlich hasn't been as outspoken about juvenile justice in the current campaign, and Mayor Martin O'Malley now promises to push for similar reforms should he win tomorrow's election. Four years of missed opportunities have only made the issue more urgent.

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