As Maryland prepares to close most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School this week, it has developed a backlog of tough young offenders who are being held for weeks in juvenile jails while state officials struggle to find places to put them.
More than 150 youths who are supposed to be in rehabilitative treatment programs are instead being held in the jails, almost a third of them for at least six weeks, records show.
The jails, designed to hold youths for a few days while they await court appearances, are not equipped to offer the counseling, academic programs and other therapeutic treatment services that judges have ordered.
"Instead of providing treatment, they are just holding kids," said Susan Leviton, who heads the juvenile law clinic at the University of Maryland. "These kids usually are those who are the most in need of services, the ones with mental health problems or who need special education services."
Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for reforming juvenile services, said the state has failed to develop enough programs to house troubled youngsters.
"If you have a significant number of kids awaiting space because there are not enough beds, then you need to build more bed space," he said.
Delmas Wood, an assistant secretary with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said the state has long had a shortage of beds and that the number of youths awaiting placement is similar to the number in past years.
"Given the closing of Hickey, I think we've done a very good job to keep the pending placement numbers where they are," Wood said. "That's not to say that it's not a problem. We recognize it is a problem, and we've been working on it for a couple of years."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced in June that 144 residential beds at Hickey would close by tomorrow. Half of those beds have been used for the most dangerous juvenile offenders, those who have committed such crimes as attempted murder, carjacking, armed robbery and assault.
A jail and a sex offender treatment program are to remain open indefinitely at Hickey until replacement facilities can be built elsewhere.
The closing of the state's largest long-term, secure residential facility for juveniles has forced state officials to start sending some troubled youths to costly treatment programs in states including Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana.
Ehrlich has scheduled a news conference for today to talk about the way closing Hickey fits with the administration's efforts to reform juvenile services.
Advocates, legislators and others have long called for Hickey to be shut down. The reform school in Baltimore County has long been criticized by state and federal regulators for what they call a violent, dilapidated environment that often failed to rehabilitate youngsters.
Ehrlich has drawn fire from judges, legislators, advocates and others for closing Hickey before alternative programs were developed in Maryland.
Records released yesterday in response to questions by The Sun show that the number of youths being held in jails while awaiting placement has generally been growing since June.
The records show that 130 youths were awaiting placement on June 1, 141 on Nov. 2 and, according to a preliminary report, 170 as of yesterday.
An increasing number of youths appear to be staying in jails longer, the records show. On June 1, 41 had been awaiting placement for six weeks or more. On Nov. 2, there were 55. Similar information was not available for yesterday.
The average length of time youths spent waiting for placements also grew, from 35 days to 44 days.
Maryland's top public defender, Nancy S. Forster, said the decision to close Hickey has contributed to the problem.
"When you close Hickey without any alternatives in place, other than out-of-state programs, kids linger" in jails, Forster said. She said her agency is "very concerned" about the problem.
"We're looking at all of our options, including possible legal actions," she said yesterday.
Wood said his agency has been able to keep the number of youths awaiting placement from growing by steering more of them away from residential programs and toward more community-based services.
Zirkin said that raises other concerns. He said youths with a string of arrests who might best be served in a residential placement are instead being sent home because the state has no beds available.
He said that poses a threat to the public and means that the youths aren't getting the intensive treatment services required for effective rehabilitation.
"You'll know the department is serious when they start opening more facilities," Zirkin said. "Until such time, it's all smoke and mirrors."
Leviton and other advocates say that housing youths awaiting placement with others who have not been to court creates a volatile environment in the jails and is a disservice to both groups.
"It creates and exacerbates problems," said Sharon Rubinstein of Advocates for Children and Youth.
Youths who have been ordered to serve time in a rehabilitative program know that they get no credit for the days they spend in jail and often act out, she said.
"Kids hate it ... and it makes it that much harder to run a detention facility," Rubinstein said.
Housing youths awaiting placement for long periods at the state-run jail in Baltimore, the Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street, has contributed to fights and other disruptions there, advocates and others say.
A year ago, public defenders, ministers and others refused to enter the center, saying it was too dangerous. Forster's agency threatened to sue until the state made changes.
Daily population sheets for the jail in recent weeks show that frequently, more than a third of the juveniles held there are awaiting placement. On Nov. 15, 48 of the 132 youths were waiting to be sent to another facility.
Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, who supervised the downtown juvenile center until she resigned in the spring of last year, said those numbers are disturbing.
"That is absolutely outrageous and unacceptable," she said. "These children are in a facility where they have no access to appropriate outdoor recreation. They are basically in a concrete pen, meant for a short stay in a facility that is not designed to accommodate the kind of programming intended for long-term confinement."
Leviton said advocates were assured when the city center was opened that it would be used only to house youths in detention for short periods as they awaited court appearances.