Doug M., 17, says his six months at Savage Mountain Youth Center "taught me reality and got me through high school . . . . I was into drugs, doing PCP and stealing cars for fun when I got caught."
The Prince George's County youth asked that his real name not be used. He said he wants to get a job as a mechanic when he leaves the Lonaconing, Md., youth camp at the end of this month, and said he plans to "stay straight" by continuing the group drug-counseling sessions he began there last January.
Doug M. is one of hundreds of juvenile offenders to have spent time at one of Maryland's five state-run forestry camps since the outdoor-oriented youth camps first opened in the mid-1950s.
All five camps are in Western Maryland, and two more are under construction in Charles and Carroll counties. Each camp can accommodate 30 to 40 youths aged 15 to 18, referred to it by juvenile courts.
If state statistics on the number of repeat juvenile offenders from these camps mean anything, chances are good that this will be Doug M.'s last run-in with the law.
Bob Allen, who supervises the five forestry camps, said the recidivism rate for youths in these programs is about 14 percent, compared to 30 to 50 percent for similar facilities in the rest of the country.
The philosophy behind the forestry camps is that young offenders can best be helped in a rural setting with access to the outdoors and special teachers and counselors, according to John T. Buffington, the Juvenile Services Administration director for Southern Maryland.
"Half the day they're in school. The other half they work in state parks and forests, making and clearing trails and cutting trees," Buffington said. In Western Maryland the youths are sometimes recruited to fight fires or pick apples.
The camps are not locked like standard jails and very few, if any, of the juveniles there have committed violent crimes, said supervisor Allen. "It's usually auto theft, breaking-and-entering, shoplifting, drug offenses and a few strong-arm robberies that get them in trouble."
Freddy T., 16, went to the camp from Baltimore, where he was selling marijuana "to make easy money, fast." The youth, who also asked that his real name not be used, said he "had an authority problem" when he arrived, but learned from the tough physical labor of cutting timber that he can "get the job done."
The camps use a group approach, dividing the 30 to 40 youths at each site into groups of 10. "They are matched by temperaments and then they do everything together: school, 1 1/2 hours of group counseling a day, work routines, exercise," Allen said.
The youths volunteer their help during area disasters. Last year they helped out during a flood in Cumberland, and this year they helped put out brush fires in Cresaptown, Md., Allen said.
"We promote the concept of love, help, care and concern. We provide it and expect them immediately to begin to practice these feelings towards others."
Up to now, youths from Prince George's or Southern Maryland sent to forestry camps have had to make a five-hour trek to Allegany or Garrett counties -- and then only when space could be found for them.
"This meant a trip of over 200 miles and very little chance the family could be involved in the treatment," said Dorothea Rees, former regional director for the JSA in Southern Maryland. The new camps will provide more space closer by for area youths.
The number of juvenile offenders has been on the rise statewide and Southern Maryland is not exempt from the problem.
In Charles County, juveniles accounted for 97 of the 190 burglary arrests last year, and for 466 of 2,602 arrests overall. "That's a jump of about 30 percent from 1983, when the number of juveniles arrested was 365," said Doris Coombs, crime statistician for the Charles County Sheriff's Department.
But Charles County officials are concerned that cuts in state funding and high construction costs will make the Doncaster Youth Camp being built there less secure than the camps in Western Maryland. They also said the cutbacks will make it difficult to provide a program of the quality offered by the other camps.
County officials wrote Gov. Harry Hughes this month to protest the decision to eliminate two of three planned buildings -- a recreation building and a classroom and office building -- but so far they have not received a satisfactory explanation for the changes, said Marland Deen, president of the County Commission.
The officials' letter to Hughes also questioned the legislature's decision to allow a private firm to run the forestry camp's program rather than continue to use state-trained youth counselors and corrections officers, as is done at the five Western Maryland camps.
"I know the community is not thrilled with the proposal and we are trying to get more money or portable classrooms . . . . There's no way the program will operate without a school building," said JSA project coordinator Robert Harrington. He also said buses would be used to take youths to county recreation sites.
Harrington said local and state authorities are continuing efforts to solve the funding cuts at the Charles County camp.
"There's no way these youngsters will be put on that little plot of land and never see the light of day. This is a treatment center, not a jail," he said.