Rodney Stallworth

Rodney Stallworth, 18, spent four months In the J. DeWeese Carter Center last year on a drug charge. He called the place a refuge to keep him away from drugs and guns on the street. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / March 24, 2012)

In the J. DeWeese Carter Center in Kent County, youths would pick fights that sometimes turned into melees, recalled Rodney Stallworth, who spent four months there last year on a drug charge.

The detention system frustrated the 18-year-old East Baltimore resident, but he also called it a refuge. He sometimes acted out violently because he knew it would keep him there — and away from drugs and guns on the street.

"Since we can't go home, we would try to send the staff home" angry, he said. "I wanted to stay because I felt like if I went home, there was going to be more trouble."

Youth violence and staff uses of force spiked in 2011 at Maryland's most troubled juvenile detention centers, according to an annual report by the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, part of the attorney general's office. The number of incident reports filed rose 25 percent from 2010 to 2011 across the state's juvenile justice system to nearly 8,000, while some of the more violent categories of incidents increased even more.

The rise in violence frustrates child advocates, who call it the latest symptom of long-standing problems in Maryland's juvenile justice system. Youths spend months in detention centers waiting to be placed in treatment programs, a process that should take weeks. Some facilities are at nearly twice their capacity, and sometimes the young inmates resort to violence. And the staff, stressed by mandatory overtime hours, are fleeing for higher-paying jobs in the adult justice system, leaving inexperienced staff to deal with angry teens.

Some centers experience more problems than others. At the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, incidents of melees and other disturbances among large groups of teens happened an average of five times a month last year, up from once a month in 2010. Across the system, such incidents doubled to 179.

Handcuffs, a last resort in juvenile detention, were used 200 times over the year to restrain a youth population of about 40 at the Victor Cullen Center, a reform school in Frederick County. That was more than five times as often as in 2010. Youth-on-youth attacks at the facility doubled, and assaults on staff members tripled.

Security failures can lead to dire consequences, as demonstrated by the 2007 death of a teenage boy at Bowling Brook Preparatory School that was attributed to improper restraint methods. Charges against five staff members were dropped March 28. In February 2010, a 13-year-old sexually assaulted and murdered a Cheltenham teacher.

Department of Juvenile Services leaders say they recognize the problems and are exploring ways to stem the violence by shortening youths' stays in detention centers and making it easier to move them into rehabilitation. They say a dearth of options for rehabilitation is causing the overcrowding, violence and staff turnover.

"You've got kids with no history of violence mixed in with kids that do have a history of violence in very crowded conditions," said Nick Moroney, director of the juvenile justice monitoring unit. "Kids who have no history of violence should not be in a detention center in the first place, in our view."

Cheltenham, Cullen, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Baltimore City Juvenile Detention Center — four centers highlighted in the report because of their size or rates of violence — hold about 350 youths at any given time.

Overall, there are typically about 450 youths in state detention centers at a time, while 900 are in rehabilitation programs and reform schools. There are 5,700 released on probation to the community.

Some detention facilities, including the Baltimore center, saw a drop in violent incidents and uses of force last year. At Cheltenham, new leaders and stricter policies put in place after two teens escaped in July helped lower incident rates in the last three months of the year.

But such efforts do little to stem the inflow of youths who don't even belong in detention centers. Between 40 percent to 50 percent of the roughly 230 youths detained at Cheltenham and the Baltimore facility at any given time are there because they are awaiting placement in a group home, substance abuse program or other type of treatment plan, not because they have been sentenced to remain there, the report found. Detention centers are considered the last option for treatment because they are expensive and don't tailor care to individual youths' needs.

The centers are intended to hold youths for a matter of weeks, while they wait for a judge to rule on their fate or to be placed in a rehabilitation program. But without enough slots in community rehabilitation programs, youths often are stuck in the detention centers until room opens up elsewhere.

Treatment programs help rehabilitate youths with character-building activities, sports, substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling, while time spent in detention centers isn't constructive, said Terry Hickey, executive director of Community Law in Action, a nonprofit organization based out of the University of Maryland School of Law. Detention centers offer some educational opportunities, but not traditional schooling, leaving the teens idle for hours each day.

And youths who may be years removed from minor offenses sometimes share cells with those who have been found guilty of serious crimes such as first-degree assaults, Hickey said.

"I don't think anybody would argue it's a safe place," he said.

Overcrowding is at the root of the rising violence in the detention centers, state juvenile services officials say. The department is required to accommodate any youth a juvenile court orders to a detention facility, spokesman Jay Cleary said. About 36,000 youths were referred to the department in the 2011 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

Many of the facilities have been stretched well beyond their capacity. The Hickey School, designed for 72 youths, housed more than that for nearly seven months of 2011, hitting a high of 97, according to the report. At Cheltenham, two of the main housing structures double up youths in 24 rooms meant for single occupancy, filling the buildings as much as 85 percent beyond capacity.