Treatment programs help rehabilitate youths with character-building activities, sports, substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling, while time spent in detention centers isn't constructive, said Terry Hickey, executive director of Community Law in Action, a nonprofit organization based out of the University of Maryland School of Law. Detention centers offer some educational opportunities, but not traditional schooling, leaving the teens idle for hours each day.
And youths who may be years removed from minor offenses sometimes share cells with those who have been found guilty of serious crimes such as first-degree assaults, Hickey said.
"I don't think anybody would argue it's a safe place," he said.
Overcrowding is at the root of the rising violence in the detention centers, state juvenile services officials say. The department is required to accommodate any youth a juvenile court orders to a detention facility, spokesman Jay Cleary said. About 36,000 youths were referred to the department in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Many of the facilities have been stretched well beyond their capacity. The Hickey School, designed for 72 youths, housed more than that for nearly seven months of 2011, hitting a high of 97, according to the report. At Cheltenham, two of the main housing structures double up youths in 24 rooms meant for single occupancy, filling the buildings as much as 85 percent beyond capacity.
While the state's privately run juvenile treatment facilities have seen trouble in the past, they were among the most successful rehabilitation facilities in 2011, with low violence rates and productive rehabilitation programs, the report found. Private facilities fell under the purview of the juvenile justice monitor after the youth died while being restrained at Bowling Brook in Carroll County in 2007.
The department is seeking more flexibility and efficiency in placing youths in treatment programs as a solution, Cleary said. A bill allowing the department to transfer youths from a treatment program directly to another if it isn't working, instead of channeling them back through a detention center, passed the General Assembly this month.
"The whole purpose of the system is to get them the treatment that's identified as needed," said Sam J. Abed, who started his second year as state secretary of juvenile services in February.
Abed and the department are working to create a reception center by the end of the year to help evaluate and guide treatment options, and to establish guidelines on how long a youth may stay in a detention center.
But those changes won't immediately stem the problems identified in the report, Cleary cautioned.
"It's taken time to have that problem build up, and it's going to take some time to work it through the system of care," he said.
Meanwhile, a state advisory board that oversees the department is working on staff turnover and inexperience. In the 2011 fiscal year, 31 percent of new hires working directly with youths left within a year, leaving 9 percent of direct-care positions unfilled. That was up from 15 percent turnover and 7 percent vacancy in direct-care positions the previous fiscal year.
The board plans to study workforce issues, including the qualifications, training and management of staff, said Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute and the panel's chairman. AFSCME, the union representing Department of Juvenile Services workers and other state employees, also is working with the department on ways to reduce workplace violence, said Patrick Moran, the union's Maryland director.
Other efforts to make more drastic changes have stalled. A bill that would have prohibited children under 14 from prolonged detention failed to make it through a House of Delegates committee March 19.
Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has focused on juvenile justice issues, said he thinks major reforms used in Missouri and in Texas should be considered in Maryland. Both states employ intensive counseling and therapy with minimal force to help break through to the most violent of youth offenders.
"It just seems to me they're just managing crises without really trying innovative approaches," Brochin said of Maryland's system.
Youth advocates say the solution should be creating more opportunities for rehabilitation in group homes or other community-based treatment programs that are alternatives to detention centers.
Baltimore nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth argues that more of the department's budget should go toward those programs, opening up space for more youths and reducing reliance on detention, said Angela Conyers Johnese, the group's juvenile justice director.
Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of Baltimore's Campaign for Children, Youth and Families, suggested that because so much juvenile justice money is spent on controlling crime, not as much can be spent elsewhere. Sports programs, after-school activities and summer jobs could keep youths out of trouble in the first place, she said.
"People are at a loss for what to do," Johnese said of the overcrowding and violence problems. "People point to other systems that work well, and there's a question of, 'How do we do that here in Maryland?' That's been a question for years."