Out from under

Our view: Hickey, Cheltenham reforms must continue

June 30, 2008

The stench of urine pervaded the place. Hundreds of youths accused of crimes or found delinquent crowded the center. Disruptive kids were left in solitary confinement for days. The health and safety of juvenile offenders in Maryland's care were woefully compromised by a deplorable facility and abusive staff. That was the scene at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County when federal monitors stepped in six years ago. Conditions at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County were just as bad and thrust the state, rightly so, under the watch of federal civil rights monitors. It was a shameful, appalling disregard for some of Maryland's most troubled children.

But last week, after a rigorous overhaul of operations at the two centers, financed with millions of state dollars, conditions and programming at the facilities have so improved that federal monitors are ending their oversight of Hickey and Cheltenham. It's a significant achievement, and the O'Malley administration deserves credit for correcting what had been a long legacy of neglect and for making improvements at the centers a priority. The rights and needs of children in state custody, including those accused of crimes, should prevail in a just and humane society.

But the state's work isn't finished. Department of Juvenile Services officials may no longer face federal inspections, but their responsibility is to maintain a safe, credible level of care at the once-notorious facilities - at least until the state builds a preferred network of smaller, secure, regional centers. As a former federal monitor, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore knows that state programs can return to bad habits once they're off a federal watch list. That's why he's hired one of the monitors to review the agency's progress at the detention centers, which now provide improved health care, educational programs, living conditions and discipline policies. It's a credible indication of his commitment.

For too long and to the detriment of too many kids, these places were no more than warehouses, and dangerous ones. And the public suffered the consequences as many teens committed new and more serious crimes.

Cleaning up Hickey and Cheltenham had to be done; conditions were appalling and youths' constitutional rights gravely compromised. But the practice of confining juveniles in large detention facilities such as the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center should be ended once and for all. Juvenile offenders need a disciplined but constructive environment to help them turn away from a life of crime.

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