Walking the walk

March 16, 2007

When it comes to juvenile justice reforms, Gov. Martin O'Malley isn't just talking the talk. His proposed infusion of $21 million into the beleaguered state Department of Juvenile Services proves that he's serious about trying to improve the agency. He's putting precious dollars where they can make a difference in young people's lives.

Supplemental budget appropriations, which this is, have been used in the past to fill budget needs that didn't make the chief executive's A-list or to fund new programs or to dole out pork. But the additional funding for DJS seeks to address a desperate need for residential treatment programs, improve staffing and case management services for juveniles and cover the agency's rolling deficit.

The Jan. 23 death of a 17-year-old juvenile offender at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a private residential facility used by the state, surely put DJS at the top of the priority list for available state money. But unlike the previous administration, Mr. O'Malley has recognized that rhetoric won't fuel serious reform.

Of the governor's request, about $6.8 million will be used to open a 48-bed, state-run residential facility for juvenile offenders; $7 million to retire a deficit that has built up over the years; $1.2 million to fill staffing needs; and $1 million to upgrade health care and vocational services at one center.

The two legislative budget committees have pared at least a half-million dollars from the supplemental appropriation, but most of it remains in place. Despite shrinking state revenues, the legislators recognized the agency's deficiencies. It remains a system in which juvenile cases are not processed in a timely manner and the lack of available treatment options leaves juvenile offenders stuck in detention. As of Tuesday, 157 juveniles were awaiting placement, according to the state. Some critics liken the delay to punishing a teenager for shoplifting six months after the fact. What message does it send?

But let's focus on what the department hopes to do with this new money, if it is approved by the General Assembly. A 48-bed residential center would be a step in the right direction - toward the much-heralded Missouri model of smaller, state-run facilities. A possible site is the now closed Victor Cullen Academy outside Frederick, but Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore has rightly recognized that community input and support are critical to launching a program there.

Two other initiatives still need the legislature's approval: One bill proposed by state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin would give the independent juvenile justice monitor oversight of private facilities that serve juvenile offenders, and a second would impose staffing and training upgrades on these centers. These reforms would help secure and protect juveniles in the state's care.

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