Detention with protections

May 24, 2007

Maryland's troubled juvenile justice system may have escaped entanglement in a federal civil rights lawsuit over conditions at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, but it still has a long way to go to fulfill its responsibility to the kids in its care.

The Department of Juvenile Services announced Tuesday a one-year agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve health care for youths confined at the Baltimore center on North Gay Street, maintain their schooling and safeguard those at risk of suicide. Mental health screening is essential because the right assessment can direct a troubled child into treatment for the drug problem or mental illness that may be contributing to his delinquent behavior.

The agreement, along with mandated quarterly reviews, should keep the state agency focused on reforming and improving its care of juvenile offenders, across the system and at individual facilities.

Since he took office this year, DJS Secretary Donald W. DeVore has been pushing the agency toward an overdue and much-needed shift to smaller, community-based treatment facilities and abandoning the model of large, impersonal institutions. He has received financial support, so critical to the reforms, from Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration.

But overhauling the system won't happen overnight; problems are deep and systemic. At the same time, change can't come fast enough - the experience in Baltimore and elsewhere shows that younger kids are becoming more involved in serious and violent crimes. That's the dilemma and the reality, which is compounded by treatment gaps. Teens younger than 16 who are convicted as adults of violent crimes usually end up in one place - prison, an experience likely to lead them to reoffend.

The Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center has been troubled since it opened in December 2003, and despite improvements at the facility, problems remain. A recent review by the state's independent juvenile justice monitor found an increase in assaults on youths and staff and incidents of staff using excessive force against youths over the last quarter of 2006. It also found that staff and other personnel had yet to be trained in proper restraint procedures. This is inexcusable since the state revamped its restraint policies after the Jan. 23 death of a teenager at a private treatment center was attributed to excessive restraint.

The state knows what it must do to live up to the federal agreement - in three months, when the monitors issue a report, we'll see if it's following through.

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