DJS is on the right track

December 13, 2010

The folks at the ACLU deserve the utmost respect for the important work they do. As in the article, "Why DJS fails girls — and all of us" (Dec. 1) identifying deficits in our service systems is a crucial part of that work, and one can't argue with the factual statements made about the needs of girls not being adequately met by the juvenile justice system. However, the author only illustrates a superficial view of the problem, and without a deeper analysis, possibly leaves the reader to reach faulty conclusions.

Yes, girls too often experience horrible situations growing up, but so do boys. And like girls, boys develop coping mechanisms that are not safe for them or the community. And like girls, boys do not receive adequate services that incorporate all that is known about treatment effectiveness, including development of the human brain. Yet to lay blame entirely on one justice agency is blatantly unfair, ignores historical and national context, and overlooks the groundwork laid in Maryland to establish a truly effective evidence-based system.

We know that the general public demands and deserves a safe living environment. How best to achieve this has been a core source of disagreement for the past 100 years, resulting in pendulum swings back and forth from stressing treatment to punishment. From a research standpoint, over the past 30 years we have gone from a notion that "nothing works" to "we know what works, but can't make it happen." We know that punishment alone is ineffective, but we don't trust only "treatment" to keep us safe. The research is clear that ultimately, negative behavior can only be changed by attending to the individual needs of the youthful offender — one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed. Yet, interventions must take into consideration risk to the public, and thus juvenile justice must maintain an approach that balances both security and treatment needs

Far from lacking an understanding of these issues, the Maryland governor's office and the outgoing secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, Don DeVore, have been working steadfastly to implement a new approach to working with juvenile offenders. The evidence-based approach, over two years in development, is known as Maryland Comprehensive Assessment and Service Planning, or MCASP. The early development of MCASP focused on enhancing security and supervision, while software to guide staff decisions was being programmed. The software includes new risk and needs assessment tools and a new treatment service planning and case management approaches. The software is ground-breaking in that it guides staff to select evidence-based services that directly address the issues identified in the assessment.

With a change in the DJS administration, juvenile justice in Maryland is at a critical stage. The department could either adopt a new evidence-based approach to serving juvenile offenders or slip into a bewildering muddle, using a mix of old and new tools and practices that are not complementary and have poor prognosis for effectiveness. The latter would serve neither the youths nor the public.

Claus D. Tjaden

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