ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers Tuesday questioned whether the state’s troubled Department of Juvenile Services will be able to make required reforms given Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s request that all state agencies cut 12 percent from proposed budgets.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee members raised the issue with Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who said the department is making headway on turning juvenile facilities into smaller, regional treatment centers incorporating stronger mental health services with better education and a focus on including the youth’s family in treatments.
The reforms were prompted by a 2003 U.S. Department of Justice investigation of conditions at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George’s County and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. The investigation found the facilities were negligent in providing adequate physical and mental health services, education, incident reporting and staff training, among other problems, such as youth-on-youth and staff-on-youth assaults.
“How can you do these treatments and this conversion with these cuts?” asked Committee Vice Chairman Leo E. Green, D-Prince George’s.
“We’re going through a new budget process. It’s too preliminary to say,” said Montague.
Though no department funding cuts have been determined, the legislative Office of Policy Analysis forecasts a $311 million budget deficit for next year.
Montague said potential budget constraints offer juvenile services an opportunity to find more creative ways to carry out its vision.
A chief way to make improvements and to cut expenses is by reducing detention levels, said Montague. Recidivism rates are higher among youth placed in detention facilities rather than those who are released under parental supervision, he said.
Juvenile Services is also supplementing its programs with the help of other state agencies. The state Education Department is slated to take over education at all juvenile facilities by 2012 and Montague said the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been called upon to help treat the mental health problems of juvenile offenders.
Since all state agencies are susceptible to budget cuts, Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, questioned how juvenile services will be able to guarantee that the mental health agency will ensure treating juvenile offenders is a priority.
Forehand said she has firsthand experience with the needs of youth in the system since she used to be a juvenile court probation counselor.
“I’m very concerned if a child needs help and doesn’t get it,” said Forehand.
Montague said he would not hypothesize on how the department will continue planned reforms before an approved budget is in place.
Given the potential for budget shortfall and noting that the department’s 10-year master plan is due later this month, committee Chairman Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, asked for details on department budgeting for future reforms.
Montague said that the department’s plan would be presented on time, but added that he had not read the master plan yet.
Frosh added that he would like to see improvements made to juvenile justice “a lot faster,” and asked if there was any evidence current reforms have been effective.
Deputy Secretary Carl Sanniti said assaults at juvenile facilities dropped from 951 in fiscal year 2003 to 556 assaults projected for fiscal year 2005.
“It’s a sad day when the Department of Juvenile Services has to point with some level of pride to numbers that show assaults have dropped from 900 to 500,” Frosh said after the hearing.