No time to waste

September 23, 2007

Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitor Marlana R. Valdez didn't want to rely solely on her team's ability to describe the awful conditions in state facilities for kids in trouble with the law. So the most recent inspection report includes color photographs. Smart lady. The pictures reinforce the urgency to rebuild - literally - Maryland's rundown and deplorable centers for young offenders as the state pursues reforming a system too long neglected.

It's going to be a huge undertaking that will require political will and millions of tax dollars, but state officials must expedite plans to replace these vestiges of an era when kids were warehoused. The upcoming budget should reflect how seriously Gov. Martin O'Malley takes this issue.

Though harsh in its assessment, the monitoring report does offer a favorable example of what the future should hold: small, regional detention and treatment centers on the model of the renovated Victor Cullen Academy in Frederick County.

If members of the public or the General Assembly don't fully grasp the need for immediate action, the juvenile justice monitor provides ample evidence, from teenagers sleeping in shallow plastic bins on hallway floors to unsanitary bathrooms to extended detention stays.

"Oppressive" is how Ms. Valdez describes overall conditions at some facilities, a reflection of juvenile offenders' "forgotten" status. Ms. Valdez and her team say the Waxter Center in Laurel, the only detention facility for girls in the state, "is not safe or appropriate for the housing of youth," and a series of "dilapidated and abandoned" buildings at the Cheltenham Youth Facility should be razed.

These conditions have been decades in the making and reflect a juvenile justice system that has languished under two prior administrations. The level of dysfunction has intensified as juvenile offenders have grown more violent and tougher to manage.

After the death of a Baltimore teenage offender at a private facility in Carroll County earlier this year, Mr. O'Malley and his new juvenile services chief, Donald W. DeVore, launched a series of reforms that include reducing the time it takes to place juveniles in treatment, and - a much greater challenge - revamping the system to keep children in state in a network of smaller treatment facilities that are close to home. They also pushed through a $16 million renovation of the Victor Cullen Academy, which should house 48 kids by year's end.

Reform also requires overhauling a faulty assessment process, strengthening the management of juvenile cases and enhancing community supervision, where most juvenile offenders end up. These top Mr. DeVore's priority list, as they should.

But they represent the very foundation of a good system, which indicates how far Maryland has to go. The longer it takes to reform the juvenile system, the greater the number of Maryland children who will graduate from it to the state's prisons.

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