The independent watchdog agency that oversees Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services recently released a report showing the state made important progress last year toward improving conditions for youths held in its three largest juvenile detention facilities. That's good news given the years of problems the system has encountered with overcrowding, incidents of violence, high staff turnover and aging facilities. Now the state needs to build on those gains by replicating the successful programs at its largest institutions in smaller facilities statewide.
DJS Secretary Sam Abed appears to have taken to heart criticisms that the state fills its detention centers with far too many nonviolent juvenile offenders who don't need to be there. In the past, that contributed to serious overcrowding at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, where youths whose cases had already been adjudicated often waited for weeks or months before a bed in a state residential treatment facility became available. Time spent in the state's detention centers does not count toward completion of a treatment program.
Mr. Abed has argued, rightly in our view, that many of those youths could be better served by alternatives to detention such as home detention supplemented by GPS monitoring, home visits by DJS staffers, and daily and evening reporting requirements. Another alternative is sending youths in detention facilities to smaller, community-based treatment programs. Over the last year, with the support of an Annie E. Casey Foundation grant, these approaches have been tried at all three of the state's largest youth detention facilities, and data compiled by the independent Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit suggests they are producing results.
Overall levels of violence and injuries associated with youth assaults on other youths or staff have declined, as have group disturbances. So has the use of physical restraints to control unruly youths, such as the ones that led to the 2007 death of a boy at the now closed Bowling Brook Academy in Carroll County. Mr. Abed can also point to some successes in reducing contraband and incidents of suicidal behavior among youths in DJS facilities, though progress in this area remains uneven.
The agency still faces significant challenges, however, particularly in regard to providing residential and treatment programs for girls of the same quality as those for boys. The state's only treatment program for girls is housed at the Carter Center on the Eastern Shore, which lacks many of the regular athletic and vocational opportunities available to boys and whose location far from the metropolitan regions many girls come from makes it harder for families to support and participate in their treatment.
The physical plant at the Carter Center is also an impediment, in that it was originally built as a detention facility, not as a treatment center. As a result, its design doesn't complement the institutional mission for which it is now being used. "Generally, female youth in the juvenile justice system are 'disproportionately high need and low risk,' which makes individualized, effective treatment of female youth difficult to achieve when they are subject to the nature of confinement in a hardware secure facility," the report notes. It goes on to warn that such conditions can exacerbate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder girls may have experienced, and they run counter to current best practices regarding trauma-informed care.
Mr. Abed took over a Juvenile Services Department in 2011 that was deeply troubled and mired in seemingly intractable problems that had been decades in the making. There are no quick or easy solutions that will magically turn the agency around. But the approach he has adopted at the largest detention facilities, which focuses state resources on the most serious youthful offenders while aggressively pursuing alternatives to detention for those who pose little or no danger to public safety, is a model for similar institutions statewide.
That has earned him high marks for redefining DJS' mission as an agency that primarily serves the state's most at-risk, high-need children. The department still needs to revisit the question of whether another large detention center in Prince George's County, scheduled for construction this year, is really needed, or whether a number of smaller facilities would better serve youths and their families. Such questions represent some of the most difficult challenges still facing the agency. But the solid progress so far suggests it is finally moving in the right direction.