A report on Maryland kids

Our view: Youthful offenders are toughest challenge

June 12, 2008

Maryland is a wealthy state, but the well-being of its children doesn't reflect that prosperity. Even though the percentage of children living in poverty is the lowest in the country, children in 18 other states fare better than Maryland's 1.3 million kids. That's the overall assessment of how Maryland ranks on 10 measures of child well-being, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count. Rather than bemoan the findings, Maryland should use them as a guide to improving the lives of its youngest citizens.

Nationally, the Casey report showed improvements in child death rates, percentages of teens who died, teen birth rates and the number of high school dropouts. For Maryland, the data offer several areas for policymakers to pursue, including reducing the numbers of low-weight babies and providing job opportunities for children whose parents are unemployed.

But the children facing some of the toughest challenges and with poorer outcomes are those caught up in the juvenile justice system. The Casey review depicted a disturbing portrait of Maryland's youthful offenders: On any given day, 1,104 youths are detained or committed because of criminal charges, but 67 percent of them are being held on nonviolent offenses. The youths in the juvenile justice system are disproportionately minorities, exceeding the nation's ratio of three black youths for every white one.

After years of neglect, Maryland is in the midst of reforming the agency that serves youthful offenders. The work includes improving the assessment of juveniles to ensure they are properly placed, reducing the number of youths in detention, building smaller residential treatment centers and increasing participation in intensive family-youth therapy programs.

The immediate focus has been to replace large, dangerous detention centers with smaller, regional facilities. But juvenile offenders would be better served through increased use of family-based therapy that allows youths to remain in the community. An expansion of this results-driven program would keep youths out of costly detention facilities and improve outcomes for kids.

Maryland can't be expected to revamp its troubled juvenile justice system overnight, but steady, measurable progress must be shown. The Kids Count report should be used to assess the state's progress in reforming its troubled juvenile justice system.

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