State officials were right last week to postpone approval of a Department of Juvenile Services contract to increase the capacity of the privately owned Silver Oak Academy juvenile residential treatment facility in Carroll County. The department wants to double the number of beds there, from 48 to 96, in order to reduce the backlog of youthful offenders awaiting treatment in overcrowded lockups.

Getting more troubled young people out of detention centers and into treatment where they can receive the help they need is certainly a worthy goal. But the way the department is going about it flies in the face of the state's own commitment to limit the size of such facilities to no more than 48 kids. Putting more beds at Silver Oak risks backsliding toward the kind of larger, harder-to-manage facilities that Maryland has been struggling move away from in recent years.

The dilemma arises because of the perennial shortage of slots at the state's two youth residential treatment facilities owned and operated by the state. Victor Cullen Center in Western Maryland for boys and the J. DeWeese Carter Center on the Eastern Shore for girls are already near or at capacity. By law, such so-called hardware-secure facilities cannot exceed 48 beds because experience has shown that programs larger than that aren't as effective in helping kids turn their lives around and because they carry a greater risk of violence.

The Maryland legislature has set aside $188 million in capital funds to build two new, small state-run facilities in Central Maryland, one in Baltimore City and the other in Prince George's County, but both projects are behind schedule and production has not begun on either. That is why DJS Secretary Sam Abed wants to expand enrollments at Silver Oak, which is not subject to the 48-bed cap, to absorb the current overflow in the state's youth lockups.

Make no mistake, the backlog in Maryland's juvenile detention centers is a serious problem. Young people who have been ordered into treatment by the courts can languish in juvenile jail for weeks or months while they wait for a treatment slot to become available. In the meantime, they're not getting the educational and counseling services they require, and the extended confinement in uncomfortable, overcrowded conditions may even make their problems worse.

But packing the overflow into private treatment facilities like Silver Oak only kicks the can down the road for making the hard decisions the situation requires. It lets DJS apply a temporary Band-Aid to a festering problem that even the agency admits requires a more comprehensive approach. It also allows officials to avoid rethinking the much more fundamental issue of whether the state should be locking up so many kids in the first place.

Might not a better approach be to find ways to provide services for troubled youth in the communities where they live? Many of the young people who come before the courts are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors and nuisance crimes rather than serious felonies. Why couldn't they be served just as well through intensive monitoring, supervision and case management services instead of incarceration?

The private company that runs Silver Oak Academy, Nevada-based Rite of Passage Inc., is known for its large youth treatment facilities in the West — one has 500 beds — and it clearly wants to expand its operations here. It also has the political clout be get its case heard by lawmakers in Annapolis.

Secretary Abed's request to fund a doubling in size of Silver Oak is being billed as a temporary, stopgap measure, but once the deal goes through, who is to say that it doesn't become the new norm, if only by default? Recall that it was only last May when Mr. Abed denied any intention of ever expanding Silver Oak Academy beyond its current 48 beds.

What's so glaring about this case is that Silver Oak is the new incarnation of the old Bowling Brook Academy, a mega-facility that was forced to close when a boy died there while being restrained. Rite of Passage wasn't in charge then, and its management of Silver Oak has gotten generally high marks. But why take a chance? Many youth experts say juveniles tend to do better in smaller facilities that are closer to their homes. That's a wiser policy than backsliding along a path that's already proven counterproductive.

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