The big detention centers at the heart of Maryland's juvenile justice system, troubled for decades by abuse, mismanagement and a legacy of repeat offenders, would gradually give way to smaller, gentler facilities under a package of proposed reform bills.
The legislation would also replace a network of privately run group homes, where juvenile offenders are often placed for treatment, with state-run facilities.
"It is a systemwide failure, and you can't fix it with a Band-Aid," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat whose five bills have earned the qualified backing of Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.
No one has put a price tag on such a sweeping effort, however, nor has Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. indicated how much he might be willing to spend in years to come.
Zirkin, chairman of the juvenile law subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, would like to remake Maryland's juvenile justice system in the image of Missouri's, where a long-standing reform effort has cut the rate of repeat offenders to about 8 percent, at a daily cost per child of about $80.
That's about half of what Maryland spends per child, and the recidivism rate here is far higher, by some measures 70 percent to 80 percent.
Youth advocates applaud Zirkin's intent but remain wary of the proposals, mostly because they don't believe Montague's department is up to the task of drastic reform.
"Missouri is a model we would all love to replicate, but it isn't a model you can replicate with legislation," said Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "What is unique about Missouri is the attitude and approach of the staff and the management."
Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of the children's advocacy group JJ Fair, agreed. "In the past we have had very poor results from very good legislation," she said, and future reforms will also fail "until we have the right people in place in the Department of Juvenile Services. The same people who have overseen these problems for years are overseeing them now."
There is more agreement on the severity and persistence of the state's problems. Over the past 20 years, the headlines, studies and investigations pertaining to Maryland's juvenile justice system have acquired a grim sameness, depicting violent institutions where minors are treated like hardened criminals and respond accordingly.
The larger detention facilities are supposed to be short-term way stations for youths awaiting trial or placement in a residential program, but minors often end up staying for months longer than they're supposed to.
Behemoths such as the privately run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, which is both a detention center and a prisonlike "training school" housing about 260 minors, continue to generate horror stories of violence and drug use. Some involve the brutalization of youths by staff members. Such problems have recurred even as the state has hired and fired contractors, or opened and closed facilities under its own management.
What Zirkin hopes to do with his bills, to be heard today by the Judiciary Committee, is speed up placement in treatment programs, get rid of outdated detention facilities, and shrink, improve and standardize treatment centers, putting them all under state management.
"I think we're pretty close on having some kind of consensus on this," said Montague, who has been working with Zirkin the past few weeks in drafting possible amendments. As for the contention that he should first clean house in his department, the secretary said, "I think that what we have to do is to modernize the staff. But their idea of wholesale changes is ... not practical."