LET’S NOT MAKE A MOUNTAIN out of the Maryland Board of Public Work’s decision to allow a Carroll County facility for troubled juvenile teens (photo on left) to exceed an artificial cap on population set by the state for such treatment centers.
It was a practical, common-sense action that places the welfare of these disturbed teens ahead of a rigid, inflexible capacity limitation set by Maryland legislators — a limit that actually hurts the very youths this restriction was designed to help.
Maryland Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who repeatedly expressed reservations at last week’s meeting about doubling Silver Oak Academy’s population, rightly concluded, “You can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.”
Yes, it’s been shown in other states that smaller treatment centers for young delinquents are more effective in helping them face up to their problems. A 48-bed center is the ideal, but governments rarely face ideal situations.
Right now, there are 43 youth offenders sitting in detention cells awaiting court-ordered placement. No beds are available in any state treatment center. That is the worst possible outcome for these troubled kids.
Why does this chronic situation keep occurring? Because local political leaders block state attempts to locate such facilities in their communities, so that the kids are close to their families. It’s the old “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude, which overrides society’s obligation to do what’s best for difficult-to-handle youngsters.
Opposition from politicians in Southern Maryland and in Baltimore City has stymied efforts to site juvenile care centers (52 city locations failed to pass the NIMBY test) . So 43 kids languish in detention cells, becoming victims of a broken system. The harm done to them is something Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed says, “I can’t tolerate.”
His interim answer: allowing Silver Oak Academy in Keymar to slowly take in 48 more residents. In essence, the operators will run a mirror-image, companion 48-bed center on the property.
Staffing ratios won’t change. Every step taken by the private operator will be closely followed by the attorney general’s juvenile justice monitor (who preferred an expansion of only 24 beds), the Public Defender’s office and by internal department watchdogs.
This isn’t as Sen. Bobby Zirkin of Baltimore County put it, a “giant step backward.” More accurately, it is a reality check.
Last winter, legislative budget analysts assessed the overcrowding situation and concluded doubling Silver Oak’s capacity “would provide some immediate relief.” It noted that due to repeated local rejection of suggested juvenile treatment center sites, the state “is multiple years away from having additional. . . capacity available.”
To date, Silver Oak Academy has gotten high marks. There is no indication this will change with 48 extra teens at the facility.
In this instance, the state’s first duty is to get the teens who shouldn’t be there out of detention jails. If that means ignoring an artificial 48-bed limit in the short-term so be it. Treatment should always trump incarceration for young offenders who may yet become model citizens.