The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services has asked again to expand the capacity of a privately run residential facility in Carroll County to twice the state's limit, saying there is a backlog of young offenders who are waiting in detention centers instead of getting treatment.
The department first broached doubling the capacity of Silver Oak Academy from 48 to 96 beds more than a year ago. It was a departure from the state's long-term plan to create smaller treatment centers for young offenders.
In a last minute reversal, the Board of Public Works scheduled a Wednesday vote on the expansion. Gov. Martin O'Malley's new chief of staff, John Griffin had pulled the item from the agenda late Tuesday over unanswered questions that he did not specify.
O'Malley's staff said the governor returned to town earlier than expected and decided to move forward with the expansion discussion.
Officials pushing the $9.3 million expansion say it would relieve a backlog of about 40 juveniles who have been ordered to undergo treatment at a facility such as Silver Oak but must wait in detention centers instead. On average, those young people wait 54 days, the department says. None of that time can be applied to shorten offenders' sentences.
Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam J. Abed supports moving toward smaller facilities, said his spokesman, Eric Solomon, who described the expansion of Silver Oak as a short-term fix.
"The secretary wants to make sure these kids get treatment as soon as possible, and we're doing what we can in Silver Oak right now," Solomon said.
Opponents say the proposed expansion is a way to derail the state's long-term plan to treat juvenile offenders in smaller, regional facilities that they say provide better treatment and keep young people closer to their communities.
"It's a giant step backward," said state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of expanding juvenile facilities.
"At the end of the day, we're trying to prevent what to most people who work in juvenile services is so obvious," he said. "Sticking a hundred kids into a warehouse environment creates criminals."
The state moved to limit the size of publicly run juvenile treatment facilities in 2007, the year a 17-year-old was killed at what was then Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a private facility in Carroll County. After the boy's death, the facility was closed and O'Malley pledged to develop a network of small, state-run facilities.
Silver Oak opened at the same Keymar location under different, though still private, management in 2009, with the space to expand to 150 beds. In 2010, the state imposed a 48-bed cap on privately run facilities — the same as for public facilities — but allowed state officials to request an expansion under certain circumstances.
Abed asked in January to double the capacity of Silver Oak, but the plan was put on hold when the three-member Board of Public Works questioned whether it had legislative support.
Solomon said Abed gave briefings to budgetary committees in both chambers of the General Assembly and to the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee during the legislative session.
During that time, the number of young people waiting for space in treatment facilities nearly doubled. Twenty-one were waiting for space on Jan. 28; 40 were waiting on April 15.
The Board of Public Works is expected to consider the proposal in July. State Comptroller Peter Franchot, one of three members of the board, objected to the expansion when it was proposed in January.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, also a member, has yet to make up her mind on the project, though at the last hearing she expressed concern that legislators would object, said Susanne Brogan, deputy treasurer for public policy.
"I don't think she's completely made up her mind, and I think that what Secretary Abed has to say will be important," Brogan said. "I don't know if silence means that they have no problem, but we have not been contacted directly by legislators objecting to the expansion."
O'Malley is the third member of the board. According to documents prepared by the board, the Governor's Office for Children approved the expansion last year.