A Dangerous Precedent

Our View: Maryland's Decision To Allow A Private, For-profit Company To Open A New Juvenile Facility On The 78-acre Bowling Brook Campus Is A Step In The Wrong Direction

July 07, 2009

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services seemed to have learned the right lessons from the death of Isaiah Simmons III, the 17-year-old Baltimore boy who was killed in 2007 while being restrained at the Bowling Brook youth lockup in Carroll County. The sprawling facility was closed, and state leaders rightly used the death as a rallying cry for finally moving Maryland toward a system of small facilities for juvenile offenders - no more than 48 beds each - located in or near the communities the youths came from and connected with comprehensive family services.

But good intentions went awry. A new facility, the Silver Oak Academy, is opening on the grounds of Bowling Brook. The state insists it won't have more than 48 beds, that it will be temporary and that it does not fit into Maryland's long-term plans. But something doesn't quite add up. The 78-acre property once held as many as 175 boys, and the private operator, for-profit Right of Passage of Nevada, is accustomed to managing mega-facilities in the west - one has 500 beds. It spent $10.25 million to purchase and renovate the Bowling Brook campus. Is it going to be content with a three-year, $9.8 million contract with the state?

Maryland has thoroughly demonstrated what can go wrong in large, isolated juvenile lockups. In addition to the death at Bowling Brook, Maryland has faced years of violence and abuse at the state-run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. The state only recently won a reprieve from federal oversight at those facilities. The Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, which holds about 100 youths, has seen an escape, fights and a barricade situation in recent years.

Maryland set aside $188 million in capital funds to build new, small, state-run facilities, and the department says this contract is just a bridge until they are built. But It's all too easy to see how those promises could slip away. Maryland needs more places to house youth offenders. Budgets are tight. A private operator already has a facility that can handle more, so why spend the money on something new?

Right of Passage has demonstrated that it has the political clout to make things happen in Annapolis. It spent $50,000 on lobbying last year, hiring Gov. Martin O'Malley's former campaign manager to lead its successful fight against a bill that would have capped private facilities at 48 beds. More disturbing, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore, who has supported the 48-bed limit on public facilities, opposes requiring private operators to meet the same standard.

There's nothing magical about 48 beds. The new Victor Cullen Center, which is about 10 miles from Silver Oak across the Frederick County line, has experienced plenty of problems in spite of being held to that size. Its graduates have been arrested again at alarming rates, and the supposedly secure facility has seen two escapes, including one in June in which 14 boys ran away.

The idea behind Maryland's nascent juvenile justice reform effort is that facilities not only be small but also be located near the communities where offenders live so that their families can be actively involved in their rehabilitation. To stay involved with a boy at Victor Cullen - or at Silver Oak, once it opens - a parent would either have to find a way to drive more than an hour to rural Western Maryland (public transportation: not an option) or make do with a video conference.

It would certainly be an improvement if Silver Oak could allow Maryland to bring back some of the youths it now warehouses in other states, but those juveniles include some of the state's most difficult offenders, and it's not clear that a non-secure facility like Silver Oak would be the appropriate place for them. And even if they do wind up in Carroll County, it's not the same as having more beds where they're really needed.

Advocates for juveniles are still trying to find a way to stop or delay the opening of Silver Oak, and they may succeed. Either way, Mr. DeVore has some work to do to rebuild some of the trust he's lost. Personally sponsoring legislation during next year's General Assembly session to hold privately run juvenile facilities to 48 beds would be a good start.

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