Troubled indeed

February 04, 2007

In his State of the State speech, Gov. Martin O'Malley reserved just two words for Maryland's juvenile justice system - "deeply troubled" - and the governor isn't usually a man of few words. The juvenile offenders in state custody deserve more than a mention, especially after the questionable death Jan. 23 of a 17-year-old boy at the private facility in which the state had placed him. The state's juvenile services system isn't only deeply troubled, it's dysfunctional, understaffed, overwhelmed, inefficient, poorly funded, ill-equipped and, most alarming, impervious to change.

And it's now Mr. O'Malley's problem.

The Department of Juvenile Services needs to be rebuilt from the ground up and its partners (prosecutors, police, public defenders and courts) in the justice system equipped and compelled to assist.

It's a patchwork of private and state-run residential facilities, governed by different staffing and training ratios, and it also handles hundreds of juveniles on supervision or home monitoring.

The private facilities serve youthful offenders, abused and neglected teens, the mentally ill and disabled - and often within the same center. Some answer to more than one state agency. DJS licenses and monitors some of these centers, but it is also a major client, spending $35 million a year to place young people in facilities that often lack credible evidence of success.

DJS has an interest in the facilities staying open because it lacks speedy and appropriate treatment plans for its clients. Of the 2,129 youths in its care, about 800 are in private facilities similar to the Bowling Brook Preparatory School near Westminster, where Isaiah Simmons died after he reportedly had been restrained by staffers for three hours. His death led to the removal of about 40 young people under state care from the school. The incident has reignited the debate over quality of training, care and oversight of these facilities.

At the very least, private facilities caring for juveniles who are in state custody should have to meet or exceed the training and staffing standards of state centers. But even those standards need revision; they are geared more toward correction than rehabilitation.

A proposal to extend the authority of the state's juvenile justice monitor to privately owned facilities would address one problem, but not the larger issues.

DJS needs new leadership that can reform the system to offer intensive services for juveniles whose outcomes can be measured in a way that holds providers accountable - a system in which kids are redirected, instead of recycled into the world of crime.

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