Overflowing juvenile jails

Our view: A decade after overcrowded youth detention centers were recognized as a serious problem, why hasn't DJS moved more quickly to add enough residential treatment beds to meet the need?

May 29, 2012

For years, lawmakers and child advocates have been urging Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services to speed up the process of getting troubled youths out of the state's overcrowded juvenile lockups and into residential treatment facilities where they can get help. And year after year, the answer is always the same: There aren't enough treatment slots for all the kids who need them.

So it was already more than a twice-told tale when DJS Secretary Sam Abed appeared before the state Board of Public Works recently and said he is considering expanding the size of some privately run residential treatment programs because of the shortage of beds at state facilities. Youngsters who should be in treatment, he said, are languishing instead in overcrowded detention centers, sometime for weeks or months on end, while they wait for a bed to become available.

This latest iteration of what has become a perennial complaint is as good an illustration as any of how Maryland has handled the long-standing problem of overcrowded youth lockups and insufficient treatment facilities: by simply kicking the can down the road and hoping someone else will eventually solve it. There's got to be a better way.

By law, the size of so-called hardware secure juvenile residential treatment facilities owned and operated by the state is capped at 48 beds. Currently, Maryland has only one such facility for boys, the Victor Cullen Center in Western Maryland; its counterpart for girls is the J. DeWeese Carter Center on the Eastern Shore.

The DJS is planning to build two more residential centers in the central part of the state, one in Baltimore City and other inPrince George's County, but they're both behind schedule and construction has yet to begin.

The state has partially made up for the shortfall in beds at its facilities by contracting with local private treatment centers (which aren't bound by the 48-bed cap on state institutions) or with residential programs outside Maryland. But that's a less than ideal solution, both because larger programs often aren't as effective in helping kids turn their lives around and because out-of-state institutions make it harder for family members to visit and offer support. The best outcomes follow the "Missouri model," where youngsters can get intensive treatment in small, highly structured programs that are near the communities where they live.

Mr. Abed denied that he wants to expand the size of the privately operated Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County beyond its current 48 beds, even though the facility would seem to be a prime candidate for expansion. It has room for more than 150 youths, and the company that owns it, Nevada-based Rite of Passage Inc., is known for its large juvenile-justice programs in Western states. But as long as the DJS continues to struggle to find enough treatment slots to relieve overcrowding in its juvenile detention centers, there'll always be the temptation to use that as a quick fix.

A better approach might be to find ways to treat more kids in the community. One of the system's biggest shortcomings is the lack of alternatives to detention for youngsters accused of nonviolent offenses, many of whom come before the courts for misdemeanors and nuisance crimes rather than serious felonies. They might be better served on an outpatient basis through intensive case management and supervised services.

The state needs to be sure it's locking up the right kids — and not incarcerating kids who don't need to be locked up. Perhaps, before rushing to expand the size of private juvenile treatment facilities, Maryland should look at whether all those currently being held in overcrowded detention centers really need to be there, and it ought to be ready to do anything it can to help move them along in the treatment process.

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