It's time to prioritize intervention programs for at-risk youth [Commentary]

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services relies too much on detention and institutional placement

October 01, 2014|By Ivan Leshinsky

The number of young people arrested and brought to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) is down drastically over the past 10 years. Fewer juveniles are being placed in secure detention facilities, and plans for construction of a new juvenile jail in Baltimore City have been shelved, at least temporarily.

Some contend that the reduction in the numbers of youth charged and detained is more about revised policing policies than anything else. We've seen the end of zero tolerance, and "youth connection centers" (YCCs) have opened to support Baltimore's new curfew law, which is among the toughest in the nation. It requires kids under 14 to be inside by 9 p.m., and older teens — the focus of juvenile crime concerns — must be in by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends. Rather than arresting curfew violators, police are apparently seeking out parents and guardians if the situation warrants or transporting them to the YCCs.

But while we may see a reduction in the number of unsupervised children out on the streets, some community members fear that juvenile crime is still rampant, and unruly teenagers are being detained only to be released without any behavior-changing intervention.

Low educational achievement, the absence of a caring adult relationship, limited employment opportunities and other factors can all lead to criminal activity and practically seal a young person's fate. Sociologists have found that children's life trajectories are largely determined by the family they are born into. Their parents' employment and education prospects, addictions and job contacts become their economic inheritance.

At the same time, community based organizations, nonprofits and many of the people they employ, often become the surrogate parents, mentors and support systems that these kids need to improve their prospects. These are the groups that bring their donors, volunteers, community support and neighborhood pride to the table far more effectively that any government agency, and they are losing funds at an alarming rate, scaling back services and programs or simply going out of business. They are a major part of the formula in America to address many of our social problems including juvenile crime. Elected officials, government agencies and their appointed leaders have simply got to do a lot more to make sure effective organizations, especially those anchored or working in distressed neighborhoods, thrive.

Years ago, there was an initiative to have education dollars follow kids with histories of truancy, bad behavior and adverse attitudes about school to a range of alternative education programs scattered throughout Baltimore City. But with government funds shrinking, many of these programs have not survived, including the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development's Chesapeake Alternative School, which was certified by the Maryland State Department of Education and had a 36-year run in the Brooklyn community. DJS pulled the plug on this school, affectionately described by its MSDE monitor as "the last twig on the branch," this summer.

In the mid-1990s Stuart O. Simms, then Secretary of Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, wanted to see communities taking more responsibility for preventing kids from getting into trouble. In 2007, on the Open Society Institute's Audacious Ideas blog, Jane Sundius proposed having Baltimoreans make a "Safe Passage Pledge" to Baltimore's school children by asking the city's adults to go to their porches, stoops, front doors and windows to support children on their way to school every morning and to their homes every afternoon. I'm not sure if this is what Mr. Simms had in mind, but it's a start.

While the number of juvenile arrests is down, DJS expenditures are still greatly skewed toward funding detention and institutional placements. The mini-grants that the DJS awarded to charismatic and committed community leaders and organizations years ago are not even part of the institutional memory anymore, and none of the millions previously allocated to build the proposed juvenile jail have been redirected to community based organizations struggling to stay afloat and be part of the solution.

In Baltimore City, we live and work in this giant checkerboard with its 250 neighborhoods; in many of them, the young people will not be able to navigate a more promising future without a lot of help. As long as the investment in communities and those neighborhood non-profits devoting their resources to youth development remains a low budget priority, we're unlikely to make any significant inroads in tackling juvenile crime and a host of other social problems.

Ivan Leshinsky has been the executive director of the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development (CCYD), which is celebrating its 40th anniversary next week, since 1980 (www.ccyd.org).  His email is ivanl@ccyd.org.


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