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Op-ed

Judges and correctional officers shouldn’t be in charge of youth rehabilitation | GUEST COMMENTARY

Over the course of a 30-year career in Maryland as a licensed psychologist, I had an opportunity to view the workings of the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) from a number of perspectives. I consulted at both boy’s and girl’s facilities. I also spent 12 years conducting psychological evaluations of juvenile offenders for the courts throughout Maryland. This diverse background has given me a number of views of the juvenile justice system.

A juvenile justice system needs to provide youth a fair hearing, decide appropriate interventions and, when necessary, treat offenders in either community-based services or residential placements. In Maryland’s juvenile justice system, just as in the adult criminal justice system, the state legislature has made both hearings and adjudication the purview of judges, and rehabilitation the domain of correctional personnel.

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Judges are the obvious choice to administer a fair hearing. However, if the purpose of the system is to treat youthful offenders, then who should administer adjudication? In Maryland’s system, judges decide whether children are treated in the community or in a residential placement. They can even dictate what specific treatments a child receives (i.e., individual therapy, family therapy, drug treatment). There are many states across the country that administer this differently. Specifically, judges refer offenders to juvenile services, who employ treatment experts to make decisions regarding a child’s treatment. I believe the legislature made the wrong decision in handing over decisions about treatment to lawyers.

The difficult decisions regarding what to do with a juvenile offender should be guided by the research literature on conduct disorder and risk assessment. Judges are not trained in this research. As a result, we get vast discrepancies across the state in the way judges adjudicate cases. In Baltimore, I encountered judges who would not detain a youth following a carjacking, while in some of our rural counties, youth were sent to locked facilities for getting in fights at school.

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The science of risk assessment offers us the best approach to adjudication. Many arrested youth will need no treatment at all. Their parents will be able to address their misbehavior. For the rest, research shows the vast majority can be safely treated in the community. There is a small group who will need residential care. Making good decisions about placement and treatment is critical. We don’t want violent offenders on the streets. It is not good for them or their community. But we also don’t want to incarcerate nonviolent youth as the data shows this can worsen their behavior.

Residential treatment of violent youth has produced poor results. There are two reasons for this. First and foremost, we have no effective treatments for chronically and persistently aggressive youth. We seem to be able to help kids with mild behavioral problems. Yet, for those youth who have been aggressive throughout their lives, we do not have a medication or psychosocial intervention that has proven helpful. The second reason that our residential programs produce poor results is that the facilities are correctional and not treatment oriented.

Residential juvenile justice facilities in Maryland are run by correctional personnel. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services will tell you that all of their facilities employ mental health professionals. However, these professionals do not run the facility. They merely provide individual and group counseling for the youth. The correctional personnel make the important decisions involving youth care throughout the day. Does it make sense to put someone with only a high school diploma in charge of the care of the 40 most violent youth in the state? Without any training, correctional personnel can make poor decisions. One superintendent routinely brought the five worst behaved girls in the facility to her office each Friday for a special lunch. After an enjoyable meal, she would plead with them, “I’ve fed you a nice lunch, now I expect that you will behave well this weekend.” Needless to say, this had quite the opposite effect.

The state legislature should reconsider the system it has developed. Treatment professionals should determine the appropriate treatment for youth. They should also run our treatment facilities.

Keith Hannan (kwhannan@comcast.net) is a licensed psychologist in Maryland and CEO of TZK Seminars in Columbia.


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