Hickey's Closed. Now What?

Friday, December 2, 2005

EARLIER THIS FALL Maryland briefly developed a new export: hardened young offenders. After Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s long-overdue decision to close the state's largest and most notoriously violent juvenile treatment facility, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, state officials began shipping teenage inmates to costly facilities for troubled youths in the Midwest, Texas and elsewhere. That triggered an uproar, from judges on down, so it was stopped. But scores of other youths are being warehoused for six weeks and more in juvenile jails where they are "pending placement," according to the Baltimore Sun. Lacking recreational facilities, mental health treatment and other services, those jails are meant to house inmates for no more than a few days. Still other recidivist youths have been sent to neighborhood-based group houses, or back to their own homes, unnerving some local officials. Mr. Ehrlich (R) has thus justified the fears of judges and youth advocates who warned that the state had no backup plan after closing the Hickey School and its 144 beds.

When he ran for office in 2002, the governor was right to call for change in Maryland's badly broken juvenile justice system. He was right to say that shabby, antiquated, seething reform schools like Hickey, in Baltimore County, and Cheltenham Youth Facility, in Prince George's County, were breeding grounds for recidivism that failed to educate, treat or rehabilitate their teenage residents. He was right again last summer when he announced that Hickey's reform school, a symbol of what the governor this week called Maryland's "broken, dysfunctional system," would be closed by Wednesday.

But what comes next? Mr. Ehrlich seems not to have devised a coherent plan, despite his promises three years ago to reform the system. The governor's preference is for placing youthful offenders in the least restrictive environment. That's fine in theory. But if the recidivism rate is through the roof, as it is in Maryland, it is clearly not working to get troubled kids onto the right track.

Maryland officials acknowledge that they need more capacity to house troubled youngsters; some have spoken of plans for a new, 48-bed facility. The state must also consider other departures from traditional campus-like settings such as Hickey's and privately run group homes where standards and monitoring are sometimes slipshod. Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) and some state officials have taken an interest in Missouri's system, where trained youth counselors work intensively in small, state-run homes with groups of a dozen or fewer youths. The homes are scattered around the state, so youths remain reasonably close to their families and neighborhoods. Extensive services are provided in them, including mental health and drug treatment.

Of course, that kind of approach would be expensive. And the Ehrlich administration, despite the governor's rhetorical emphasis on the juvenile justice system, has been loath to spend money to fix it. Too many people who work with Maryland's juvenile offenders are poorly qualified and inexperienced; it will take money to deal with that as well as to build treatment facilities with adequate services. Mr. Ehrlich's ringing declarations about reform are welcome. It's time for him to back them up in his budget.


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