Put more emphasis on programs that deter youth crime

August 17, 2010

With regard to The Baltimore Sun editorial "Deterring youth crime" (Aug. 16), the best way to improve the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center is to keep kids out of it. And the best way to do that is to partner with community-based organizations to provide interventions that we know work. No one knows these kids better than the families and communities they come from—and no one has more incentive to see them succeed.

We are setting up these kids, and the Department of Juvenile Services, to fail when we expect a centralized state agency to provide individualized solutions without engaging local partners. Until we start investing in community programs instead of facilities that simply warehouse kids, we have no right to expect more.

The Pre-Adjudication Coordination & Transition (PACT) center in West Baltimore takes on some of our most troubled youth offenders, keeps them out of danger, keeps them out of lock-up, works with their families, provides crucial resources and supports, and does it all for a fraction of the cost of incarceration. The MacArthur Foundation has recognized it as a national model. But instead of replicating this program—in other parts of Baltimore, or making it available to girls—DJS refuses to fund it. Instead, the agency seeks millions of dollars to build new facilities that we have no reason to believe will be better than the ones we have now.

The Female Intervention Team unit—an all-female juvenile probation unit housed at BCJJC—is another missed opportunity. At one time, Baltimore's FIT unit was a national model for innovation in juvenile service delivery. It creatively responded to the unique challenges of girls in crisis—whose needs and delinquency patterns differ from boys. But the program is a shadow of what it once was, felled by budget cuts and the loss of other community programs.

It is not hard to figure out the right thing to do—but it's hard to do it when success is measured by facilities, not kids.

Sonia Kumar, Baltimore

The writer is an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland Juvenile Justice Initiative.

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