The state's juvenile services secretary says he is considering expanding the size of privately run residential facilities for young offenders as his agency grapples with a shortage of beds.
Sam Abed, who took the job in March, said youths in need of rehabilitation are languishing in detention centers as they await openings.
"There is more need than there are beds," Abed said. "We're exploring ways we can increase the capacity across the state."
The comment was greeted with concern from a leading legislator on juvenile justice issues, who said the General Assembly has made clear its desire that programs be no larger than 48 beds. State-run facilities are capped by state law, though the secretary has flexibility to increase the size of private programs if he can demonstrate a need.
"I would sincerely hope the department would be looking at other means before jumping into that kind of battle," said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Zirkin said he believes the number of youths awaiting placement, a persistent and long-standing problem, isn't sufficient cause to allow facilities to grow beyond 48 beds. Youth experts agree that smaller facilities that are closer to the communities where juveniles live generally result in better outcomes.
"When you look at what works, larger than 48 beds does not work," said Angela C. Johnese, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth. "As facilities get larger, they get more dangerous."
Abed noted that the state has long-term plans to build a 48-bed facility in the Baltimore region, and said any expansion of existing private facilities would be subject to public review.
He answered questions after the state's Board of Public Works approved a new three-year contract Wednesday with the company that runs the Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County.
At $17.8 million, the contract is nearly double the original $9.8 million that Nevada-based Rite of Passage Inc. received for its first three-year deal. Silver Oak is run at the site of the former Bowling Brook Academy, which was shut down after a young resident died there.
Officials said the increase was not to add beds at the facility, which has room for more than 150 youths, but to cover educational costs not included in the original award. In February 2012, the public works board retroactively approved an additional $4.5 million after saying Rite of Passage ran out of money in October 2011.
"This is not an expansion at all," Abed told state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp at Wednesday's meeting. "This is just to re-up the contract at the same 48-bed level."
In 2009, Gov. Martin O'Malley called Silver Oak merely a "bridge" to the goal of small, state-run facilities across Maryland.
But Silver Oak would appear to be a prime candidate for expansion. The campus has a 20,000-square-foot vocational training center and six dormitories. Rite of Passage, which is known for large juvenile justice programs in Western states, purchased the 78-acre property for $8 million in addition to taking on $2 million of the former owner's debts and spending $200,000 in renovations, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
Attempts to reach administrators at Silver Oak were unsuccessful.
The new contract was approved Wednesday by a unanimous vote of the spending board, which consists of O'Malley, Kopp and state Comptroller Peter Franchot, who voted against the first deal. All three are Democrats.
The board also approved spending $38 million to add beds at seven small facilities expected to serve additional youths. The agency said that's necessary in part because it is trying to place fewer children in programs in states such as Arizona and Utah.
A data snapshot from Feb. 13 showed there were 136 youths being held in short-term detention centers in Maryland awaiting long-term placement. Their average length of stay in detention is 40 days, which officials say is far too long. One-third of the youths were back in detention after failing in a previous placement, the document shows.
Abed said the juvenile services department has made several steps toward reducing the number of youths awaiting placement in treatment programs.