Advocates want juvenile reform

Groups note youth detention violence, saying recent changes fall short

May 31, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

Juvenile justice advocates said yesterday they are not "placated" by recent reforms announced by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, pointing to a spike this year in violence at Maryland's youth detention facilities as evidence of a need for sweeping change.

In a report earlier this month by the juvenile justice monitoring unit of the state attorney general, director Marlana Valdez said "aggressive or violent incidents increased at an alarming rate" between January and March at several detention facilities operated by the state.

Since his appointment in February, juvenile services Secretary Donald W. Devore has been "making statements, and I want to see the impact and outcomes," said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, after a news conference at the group's downtown offices.

Heisner and advocates representing religious and civil rights organizations called on the state to replace jail-like facilities with community-based treatment, implement more rigorous monitoring of juvenile services' effectiveness and moderate the prosecution of nonviolent juvenile offenders.

Devore said he was surprised by the news conference, and he took issue with the advocates' characterization of his first months in office and the validity of some of the independent monitor's findings.

"We've been breaking our asses here for the last three months and really reforming the system in a way it's never been done before," Devore said, pointing to new restraint policies, plans to reopen a 48-bed residential treatment center in Frederick County in July and a settlement announced last week with the U.S. Department of Justice to quickly improve conditions at the troubled Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

The increase in violent incidents noted by Valdez was likely a reflection of more stringent reporting standards rather than a surge in violence, he said. "We're going far beyond what used to be done before in terms of reporting aggressive incidents."

One of Devore's first actions upon taking office was to institute a policy restricting the use of mechanical and physical restraints at juvenile facilities.

The new policy came after the death Jan. 23 of a Baltimore teenager, Isaiah Simmons, who was restrained for several hours at Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a private facility licensed by the state Department of Juvenile Services. Five former counselors at the Carroll County facility were indicted in April on reckless endangerment charges in connection with Simmons' death; the facility was closed under pressure from the state.

In the independent monitor's report, which covers the first quarter of 2007, Valdez said staff at some juvenile facilities believed that the new restraint policy - which requires physical restraints to be videotaped and last no more than 15 minutes - has "translated into youth believing they have more latitude in their behavior."

However, Valdez said yesterday that she was not sure whether the restraint policy was a direct cause of the reported spike in violence.

Among the incidents were 162 assault and use-of-force reports from the downtown juvenile detention center, up from 127 in the last quarter of 2006. At the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, the number of "group disturbances," or aggressive incidents involving multiple students, tripled from four in the last quarter of 2006 to 13 in the first quarter of 2007, according to the report.

"Gang issues appear to be involved in at least some of the disturbances," the report said.

This month, 10 teenagers temporarily escaped from the Hickey school, which has a long history of escapes, violence and staffing problems.

Valdez recommended that the Department of Juvenile Services close Hickey and three other detention facilities "as soon as reasonably possible" and replace them with "community-based" detention facilities.

The agency will present Valdez with a formal response to her report - as well as a "corrective action" plan - tomorrow, officials said.

At the news conference, child welfare advocates said the reported increase in violence underscored the need for continued pressure on state officials to address problems in the juvenile justice system.

"We've heard promises before," said Sharon Rubenstein, a spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth. "We are not placated; ... we want to hear about dates certain for change."

Tim Hanavan, executive director of a group representing central Maryland churches, and Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr. of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, said religious institutions need to play a more prominent role in rehabilitating troubled youths.

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