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News Opinion Editorial

Replacing Waxter

Youth advocates are questioning whether the Department of Juvenile Services needs to build a new 48-bed detention facility in Carroll County for girls awaiting assignment to one of the state's juvenile treatment centers. At a time when the state should be trying to reduce the number of youths incarcerated in Maryland, they ask, why is it adding to capacity instead? That's a valid point, but the arguments against a new building are still outweighed by the need to replace the state's dilapidated current facility for girls, which is clearly at the end of its useful life and should be closed.

The planned new facility is scheduled to open in 2017 at a cost of $53 million, and it would house up to 48 girls between the ages of 14 and 17 in individual rooms. That's only a slight increase in size over the facility it would replace, the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Anne Arundel County, which has a capacity of 42. In addition to living spaces, the new center will include a mental health treatment clinic, an infirmary and a separate cafeteria and gymnasium. The latter, in particular, would represent a big improvement over the combined "cafe-nasium" that now does double duty serving those purposes at the 50-year-old Waxter Center.

There's general agreement that troubled youth are best served in smaller facilities where they can get the educational and counseling services they need to help them turn their lives around and return to their communities. A 48-bed institution is the maximum size allowed under Maryland law for state-owned juvenile treatment facilities, and it makes sense that youth detention centers should be limited to a similar capacity as well. Experience suggests anything much larger than that significantly increases the risks of overcrowding and violence.

The real problem with the state's juvenile detention facilities is that troubled youngsters often end up staying in them far too long. The detention centers are supposed to be places where youths whose cases have already been adjudicated are temporarily confined while they await transfer to a treatment facility that can address their problems. They are locked, secure facilities that youngsters can't just walk away from, but they aren't prisons whose main mission is punishment. Their sole reason for being is to prevent youngsters from being held in an adult lockup with hardened offenders while they wait for treatment slots.

Yet many youth end up languishing for weeks or even months before being transferred to a treatment center. That's because of the chronic shortage of treatment beds in the state, which has created a long-standing bottleneck in the juvenile justice system that's especially serious for girls because of the extremely poor living conditions they endure at the rundown Waxter facility. It simply makes no sense to put troubled girls in a situation from which they are likely to emerge even more damaged than they were when they went in.

Child advocates like the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit in the state attorney general's office and the Maryland ACLU suggest DJS officials could avoid both the treatment bottleneck and the need to build a larger, more costly lockup if there were community-based alternatives to detention. The debate over whether all the young people confined in Maryland lock-ups really need to be there — especially those held for nonviolent, low-level drug and property crimes — is vitally important. There is no doubt that some youths are locked up unnecessarily. But there is similarly no doubt that not everyone should be eligible for alternatives to detention.

Some number of girls in this state will need to be detained at any given time, and it should not be in an antiquated facility like the Waxter Center. Rather than quibble over how many mattresses the new facility should have, child advocates and DJS need to work together to solve the much bigger problem of making sure the Maryland has enough treatment center beds so kids temporarily detained in the state's juvenile lockups can quickly move on to get the help they need.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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