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Youth placement is overused [Commentary]

For years I have been a strong advocate for Maryland's most vulnerable people, especially for our youth. In 2013, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services commissioned a comprehensive report that identified gaps in services for youth in the state's juvenile justice system. That report noted that for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, 4,017 girls and boys were committed to residential facilities statewide. Where Maryland had gaps in services, we sent 300 children to out-of-state facilities in 13 states, with the closest being Virginia and others going as far away as Utah and Arizona. Of the children sent out of state, 95 percent were African-American or Latino. These are astonishing numbers and represent a problem: Maryland uses incarceration and residential placement for youth too much.

But there are solutions. The very end of the report lists the number of community-based programs Maryland uses, and we need more of them and less reliance on incarceration or residential placement for Maryland's youth. A new report, Safely Home, published by Youth Advocate Programs Policy and Advocacy Center describes in great detail how any community that currently relies on incarceration has the means to send fewer youth to out-of-home placements; they can redirect the money they spend on facilities back to the community, where three to four youth can be supported for the price of locking one up.

As a senator, public safety is at the top of my mind. But we have seen time and again that youth incarceration does not improve public safety. In fact, it is a failed experiment. To really make communities safer, we should invest in them, not in jails, prisons and residential centers. For every youth we incarcerate, we are divesting a community's most vital assets. Our youth, even those in conflict with the law, need our help, not our abandonment. I believe we can better achieve our public safety goals — and have a greater impact — if we support youth and families in need rather than separating them. When we invest more in supporting youth and families in their homes and communities than we do on incarceration, youth and families can go from being recipients of services to contributors to their communities.

Safely Home details what that support would look like and also provides data about how working intensively with youth with complex needs in the context of their families and communities as opposed to the isolation of a residential bed or jail cell has worked. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center published a series of short briefs that looked at thousands of youth in Youth Advocate Programs' community-based alternatives for justice involved youth from across the country, including one right here in Baltimore. The children in these programs were high-risk youth and they have very complex needs. Yet, nearly all of them succeeded in the program with 86 percent remaining arrest free and 93 percent still living in their communities, not back in a facility. One example from a separate study that looked at 1,851 youth found that 95 percent of youth studied were still living in the community six to 12 months after discharge from YAP's non-residential community-based program.

This kind of data, coupled with the potential of Maryland's communities makes a strong case for a disinvestment in youth incarceration and reinvestment of savings into communities. As the report notes, "systems can also build ways for youth to be accountable and understand the consequences of their actions without resorting to incarceration." This is what we do with our own children. Let's do the same for Maryland's children, too.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh is a Democrat who represents Baltimore's 40th District. Her email is catherine.pugh@senate.state.md.us.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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