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  Youth advocates seek expanded role for Department of Juvenile Justice

This is one in an occasional series about positions that various groups are advancing in the 2001 session.Advocates for children — and especially poor children — started hitting the Statehouse hours before the 2001 General Assembly session opened on Wednesday, looking to drum up support for changes in the way government agencies work with families that are in crises.One proposal, said government relations director for Advocates for Children and Youth Jan M. Schmidt, would expand the role the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) plays in an offender’s life.This would help ensure that violators get the right kind of constructive attention, said Schmidt, who wants more money spent on “proven programs” such as violence prevention, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling.“The first time a child gets into trouble, he shouldn’t get just a slap on the hand and sent home,” Schmidt said. “Probation officers have so many kids [to monitor], they can’t follow up.”Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of The Public Justice Center, recently said in an interview that taking most youthful offenders out of “adult” courts and putting them into courts and programs set up to deal with youngsters could help turn offenders into productive adults.“We are not doing anything for the kids by throwing them in the adult system,” Smith said. “The courts should have meaningful intervention in their lives, instead of adult probation, where they may have to see a probation officer [only] once a month and piss in a cup.”Schmidt said that Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) should budget $15 million for DJJ to undertake activities to help offenders’ families overcome economic, domestic and mental-health stresses that may be the source of the delinquency. These families, and the youthful offenders, need employment and life skills training, Schmidt said.Schmidt hopes that with better funding, DJJ would look for more creative solutions in dealing with youthful offenders.DJJ commits 65 percent of its annual operating budget of $162 million to residential and institutional care, according to Schmidt, but less than four percent on family and community services.“The recidivism rate for institutional care in Maryland is 78 percent with eight out of every 10 youths released from a juvenile facility re-arrested within six months,” Schmidt said in support of the changes in focus she advocates.