THREE YEARS after his campaign promise to reform the juvenile justice system in Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has made a decision that was long overdue: The Charles H. Hickey Jr. School is to be closed.
Given the violence, abuse and substandard living conditions that have marred Hickey over the years, we are glad that it will soon be history. (A short-term detention center on the Hickey campus will remain open until a new juvenile jail is built.) Unfortunately, the most important question raised by Hickey's shuttering -- where those 100-plus juvenile offenders will go -- has been shoddily answered by the governor. He says that those convicted of violent crimes will be sent to secure facilities. Some of the nonviolent offenders will be sent back to their families; others will be assigned to group homes throughout the state. We're not sure the system is prepared for that.
The state's Department of Juvenile Services (formerly the Department of Juvenile Justice) has been under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department since 2002. The investigation is concluding -- only because Mr. Ehrlich agreed to certain vital reforms -- and close monitoring will continue. At the moment, however, the reforms are still just promises; fundamental defects remain that make the closing of Hickey appear rather poorly thought out. There's the amorphous juvenile-jail-to-be, which is missing some key details -- such as how much it will cost, where it will be and when it will be constructed. Doubts linger over the efficacy and availability of counseling, drug treatment and employment assistance within the group homes as well as for those returning to their communities. There are no specifics on how many kids will be ready to go home by the end of November, when the school will close. Of those who aren't, it has not been determined which group homes will take them.
There's no question that smaller facilities with highly qualified counselors and educators on staff are preferable to a monstrous, moldy, barbed wire-enclosed campus that was outdated decades ago. But at the moment, Maryland's system is sorely lacking. Group homes in the state are run by a variety of private contractors, licensed by three different agencies. They house foster children, those with severe mental health problems and suicidal tendencies, and juvenile offenders -- sometimes all together. Unqualified staffers, fiscal mismanagement and lax regulation plague the system. DJS officials insist that their monitoring of the 20 group homes they license is superior to that of the other agencies, and that might well be the case. It does not, however, change the fact that juvenile offenders in Maryland have a recidivism rate of about 75 percent.
Something is terribly wrong with juvenile justice in Maryland, and shutting the doors of one notorious institution -- though a powerful symbolic gesture -- will not solve the problem. Mr. Ehrlich has said that Hickey will be closed by Nov. 30. He has until then to ensure that the new arrangements for Hickey residents will meet their substantial needs. DJS officials say they will be ready. We hope they're right.