A task force studying why so many of Maryland's juvenile delinquents fail to live up to terms of their probation learned a key reason yesterday: More than half of those offenders released to the community have no terms of probation to live up to.
Based on a study that one task force member termed "stunning," the state's Department of Juvenile Justice has no record of probation terms for 64 percent of released delinquents.
That means the state has no way to know what treatment, if any, released youths are receiving. For those who do have "after-care" plans in their files, recordkeeping at the juvenile justice agency is so shoddy, says the study, that no reliable conclusions can be drawn about which programs are working and which are failing.
The task force was appointed in December by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to study the agency's after-care efforts and make recommendations to improve the system. It heard from the authors of the probation study that item after crucial item was missing from the files of delinquents released from juvenile jails and other holding facilities.
All of the youths studied -- a sampling of 50 teen-agers -- have been on the streets for at least six months after serving time for crimes ranging from theft to aggravated assault. Once released, the offenders were supposed to be in after-care programs that include seeing their probation officers and commonly include drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and mental health treatment.
Task force members were taken aback to learn that not only are many plans for the delinquents ignored, but that no such plans exist in the files of the majority of them.
The files indicate that in nine out of 10 cases, released delinquents have not had a single contact with a probation officer since their release.
The task force is trying to determine whether some of the delinquents included in the study saw their probation officers and the visits went unrecorded, or whether the after-care program is that bad.
"It's stunning," Bart Lubow, vice chairman of the task force, said outside the meeting. "It shows a system that's anything but standardized, really an inconsistent, unprofessional way to run an agency."
The study was conducted by the Bureau of Governmental Research at the University of Maryland, College Park. The bureau's director, Faye Taxman, said researchers were limited in their findings because key dates and other data were missing from the files. In some cases, not even the juveniles' criminal histories were included in their files.
In about half of the cases, the facilities where the juveniles were being held did not make any recommendations on types of programs the delinquents should be enrolled in at their release. In cases where recommendations were made, she said, the criteria for decisions on placements were not included in the files.
"What I was concerned about is how they were making the recommendations," Taxman told the task force. "I did not see any indications that they had standardized tools."
Since it began work last month, the task force has heard from judges, operators of treatment facilities, education experts, law enforcement officials and others in juvenile justice. Nearly all of them have reported that their contact with the Department of Juvenile Justice has led them to believe the agency needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. The interim secretary of the department, Bishop L. Robinson, has agreed.
Glendening has been searching for a permanent replacement for Gilberto de Jesus, whom he ousted as department secretary in December in part because of problems with the agency's after-care system. The Sun had published articles that month about 14 delinquents the newspaper followed for nine months after their release from a state boot camp.
None of the 14 lived up to all of the terms of his probation, and none answered for his transgressions. The majority skipped all of the terms of their probation without consequence, and all 14 ended up back in the legal system.
Task force members heard a separate report that indicated that the group followed by The Sun was not unusual. Based on a focus group that included people who provide services to released youths, the report indicated that delinquents who ignore their probation programs are rarely punished.
The service providers, the report said, feel that "when a caseworker is notified of noncompliance, they are likely to just close the case, rather than get the teen back into the program. This creates an environment where teens believe they face no consequences for their actions."
The report said probation officers often carry such heavy caseloads that rather than look for appropriate treatment for youths, they often enroll them in programs that have the shortest forms to complete.
Even probation officers who might mean well are often not adequately trained, the report said. It quoted one service provider as saying, "You can't take someone who has no real knowledge of addiction, no real knowledge of mental health, no real knowledge of basic counseling principles, and ask them to look at a kid and write an after-care plan."
The task force is to report to the governor by the end of the month.