BALTIMORE – Ask some Maryland leaders interested in juvenile justice what they think of the state’s system, and they say it’s not working. Ask them how they’d reform it, and many point to the model used in Missouri.
In Missouri, less than 10 percent of delinquents return to the Division of Youth Services within three years after release from a treatment facility. In Maryland, 56 percent are rearrested within three years.
Missouri receives national praise for rehabilitating delinquent youth in a system that uses small, regional treatment centers, improved training for staff and carefully crafted treatment programs.
Yet Maryland has made few changes that would push it toward the Missouri model, despite efforts by some lawmakers and advocates. And Sam J. Abed, who became Maryland’s secretary of juvenile services in February, says he’s not sure the Missouri system is a perfect fit here.
“Maryland has a lot of issues that need to be resolved that Missouri is not facing,” Abed said.
But those who believe in the Missouri system say Maryland should adapt it to generate reforms here.
“I don’t think there are any operational or statutory barriers to doing the Missouri model,” said Bart Lubow, director of juvenile justice strategic group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when we have a state that’s been as successful as Missouri,” said Maryland state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who has introduced many bills to move the state in that direction.
About 160,000 youths enter the Maryland juvenile system each year — with more of them coming from Baltimore than from any other jurisdiction. They are, generally, as young as 11 and some are more than 18 years old. They range from runaways to murderers. More than half will return to the system within three years of release.
“There’s no area that’s more dysfunctional in the state,” Zirkin said. “We are a failure statistically.”
Last year, Zirkin sponsored a bill to limit the size of facilities to 48 beds. That number is significantly less than that of most Maryland centers for delinquent youth. But in Missouri, the average size of youth facilities is 30 beds.
Advocates believe that smaller centers mean that teenagers get more attention and the chance for better treatment. But they say the state needs to do much more to help teenagers — to improve their lives and to protect public safety.
The system, advocates say, needs better training for its staff; treatment programs that involve families and community members, and centers that are less like prisons.
But people who want to change the system keep meeting opposition –political and financial.
Mark Steward, former director of the Division of Youth Services in Missouri, says it took his state 20 years to revamp the system. Marylanders who want to change programs here must begin somewhere.
“It’s been a long journey but if you don’t start someplace, you’ll never get there,” he said.
Abed, Maryland’s new juvenile services secretary, says he has begun to identify problems he believes must be fixed soon. Among them: “pending placement.”
In Maryland, juveniles sit in detention centers after they have already faced a judge, awaiting placement in a regional or out-of-state treatment center for weeks, if not months, because those centers are full.
“Missouri has enough space for its kids,” Abed said.
Maryland’s department goal is to move juveniles from detention to their placement — either probation or in a treatment facility — within 25 days. The average length of stay for juveniles in detention centers last year was 30 days. And advocates say that number hides the reality that many wait much longer.
“We know there are kids sitting there for four months,” Lubow said.
But many leaders say the pending placement problem can be resolved if the department embraces the Missouri approach. Missouri supporters believe using the model would reduce the number of kids who reenter the system. That would help ease the pending placement problem and would improve public safety.
“In Maryland, it’s very doable,” said Steward. “The Maryland system is amenable to making the kinds of programs that work for kids.”
“The leadership has to want to do it and has to have the administrative dexterity to actually implement it,” Lubow said.
Finding the “administrative dexterity” has been difficult for Maryland, which has seen nine secretaries in two decades.
Abed’s appointment follows the abrupt departure of Donald DeVore, who had been secretary for three years. Lubow says that Abed has inherited a complicated system that has grown over decades.
Since 2001, hundreds of Maryland officials have visited Missouri to learn about the treatment model — Zirkin and Kenneth Montague, a former secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, among them.
Montague says the success of Missouri treatment facilities was obvious.
“Kids had a sense of connection,” he said. “They were learning and they were achieving.”
“There’s a body of research across the country that shows that this model works for juvenile residential programs,” said Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth.
Zirkin says that the first thing the new secretary should do is bring in Steward and his group to Maryland to review the juvenile services system. Steward’s team could assess what kind of facilities the state needs and where they should be.
“We’ve been talking to the people in Maryland now for going on 10 years and I think they could have done some things there,” Steward said. “There are things you can do internally, things you can do right now at the bottom level.”
Steward said he believes that once Maryland has a concrete plan and a strong commitment to take action, the next step is using whatever resources are available and making small but steady improvements.
“It’s not something I can do by myself,” Abed said. “We need to agree on what goals we need to prioritize.”
Abed plans to gather all the partners that work collectively within the juvenile justice system: judges, attorneys, advocates and other state agencies. He says he needs to ensure partners all agree on an approach.