ANNAPOLIS – Attempted murder. Sexual misconduct. Unlawful use of a weapon. All charges that landed 17-year old Chauncy in a juvenile detention facility.
Less than a year later, at the Hillsboro Treatment Center near St. Louis, Mo., Chauncy won a national poetry contest, is awaiting the results of his high- school equivalency diploma test and is looking forward to going home to his fiancee and two children.
Some Maryland lawmakers are hoping to duplicate Chauncy’s transformation from hardened young criminal to educated family man in their own juvenile justice system, using Missouri’s highly touted youth services system as a model.
“This place has really helped me a lot. It helped me to get away from the street mentality,” Chauncy said.
Delegates Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, and Anthony O’Donnell, R- Calvert, have introduced a legislative package of more than 10 bills that would overhaul Maryland’s oft-maligned juvenile justice system into one similar to Missouri’s.
The lawmakers toured Missouri’s juvenile facilities last year and were awed with what they observed.
“It was breathtaking to see what they’re doing there. Nothing short of spectacular,” Zirkin said.
The bills would make major changes to detention facilities — adding intensive educational components, mentoring programs, and increased monitoring.
Perhaps the most controversial bill, Zirkin admitted, is a proposal, similar to Missouri’s, to create a pilot educational program to separate children within the department of juvenile justice’s custody from other children in the state’s public school system.
But experts questioned the wisdom in creating such a program.
“We don’t want to create a system that doesn’t allow them to go to public school,” said James McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.
But the bill is designed to help children in the state’s custody, Zirkin said.
“It’s not about taking the kids away from the other kids,” Zirkin said in defense of the bill, “It’s about giving the kids that are most in trouble as much individual attention as you can get them.”
Attempts to reform Maryland’s juvenile justice system have been ongoing since reports in 1999 of beatings at juvenile boot camps and other problems.
Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich made juvenile justice one of his campaign priorities.
Shortly after his inaugural, he released a detailed plan to improve juvenile services, boosted the department’s budget in a tight budget year and appointed former Democratic Delegate Kenneth Montague to head the Department of Juvenile Justice. He even plans to change its to the Department of Juvenile Services.
Spokesmen from the department did not return calls for comment.
“The key to our system is based on treatment and rehabilitation in a very unprisonlike environment,” said Mark Steward, director of Missouri’s Division of Youth Services.
Missouri’s system was transformed about 25 years ago, Steward said. Today, it is touted as one of the best juvenile systems in the country.
The system tracks juveniles for three years after their release and has found that within that period, 75 percent did not return to the criminal justice system, while 5 percent ended up in prison and 20 percent did have contact with the justice system, but received sentences that did not include prison, Steward said.
“It was pretty clear that the system as a whole works better in Missouri than it does in Maryland,” said David Addison, juvenile court supervisor in Baltimore County’s public defender’s office who also toured the facilities.
While experts commend the legislators for their commitment to improving the system, they warn a model that succeeds in one jurisdiction, may not have identical results in another.
“Just seeing a good model, does not necessarily mean you can replicate it,” said Bart Lubow, director of programs for high-risk youth at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
McComb said the Ehrlich administration and the juvenile justice department under its new leadership should have a chance to develop their plans before the Legislature gets involved.
But he sympathized with the urgency.
“(The legislators) are increasingly aware of how poorly our system is constructed,” he said, “and are very anxious to make changes.” – 30 – CNS-2-21-03