Rescuing juvenile services

January 24, 2007

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services has long been an agency in limbo - with many reforms either stalled or abandoned. It's Gov. Martin O'Malley's turn now to push for meaningful progress. And whomever he picks to head the agency - as well as other top-ranked appointees within it - should be experienced and committed to implementing smart policy and operational changes that can save more troubled youths.

In any given year, more than 30,000 young Marylanders come in contact with DJS, and less than 20 percent are placed in one of the agency's secure facilities. Most are released, or their nonviolent offenses are handled through probation, electronic monitoring or other methods of nondetention. Not nearly enough, however, are being helped through community-based programs that have proved effective in other jurisdictions.

Despite expressed good intentions, DJS has been plagued in recent years by a lack of resources and a seeming lack of will. Although more youths are being educated or getting help for substance abuse and mental health problems, too many are still being locked up when they should be referred to appropriate services. Persistent agency shortcomings, such as overcrowding and understaffing at detention facilities, continue.

In addition, an ambitious master plan to upgrade some detention centers and create community-based facilities and programs aimed at keeping delinquent youths closer to their families and neighbors has yet to materialize. Too many youths are sent out of state to be treated in programs that are not available in Maryland, but should be.

More money would help; DJS has suffered from budget shortfalls in recent years. But the agency needs effective leaders throughout its top ranks; its facilities management and system of contracting with outside vendors should be overhauled; and it needs more reliable data and more candor about which programs and services are working and which ones are not.

Getting timely, effective help to troubled youths and turning them around before they can become hardened adult criminals is a challenge. But the state either gets it right now or all Marylanders pay a much higher price later. That's why it's critical to put someone in charge who understands those consequences.

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