Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Maryland's 'Vulnerable Youth': How Good Is the News?

Marylanders have been hearing a lot more recently from their governor about StateStat, the O'Malley administration's performance measurement and accountability program. It would be encouraging if this was a response to my critique of the program, but alas it seems more geared to public relations than real accountability. But the videos about StateStat and the mapping tools are a nice touch -- nothing fancy – just Gov. Martin O'Malley talking to the camera.

Earlier in the month, O'Malley testified before Congress about the new maps tracking the use of stimulus money that I blogged about, and then he gave a keynote speech to an international conference in San Diego on GIS mapping programs.

Last week, O'Malley released a new video reporting on "efforts to protect Maryland's vulnerable youth." Juvenile Services and Human Resources, two of the most troubled departments in state government, were some of the first agencies to take part in the intensive StateStat review. This has produced some improvement in some numbers, and that's what O'Malley was touting.

But the nonprofit watchdogs who track youth services closely said there is less good news than meets the eye. "The governor's office picked statistics where there was some improvement," said Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director at Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore.

Advocates for Children and Youth organization is not very popular with the O'Malley staff or the governor himself, based on a rather snippy exchange he had with Johnese at a Board of Public Works meeting last month.

Johnese points out that last week's video and press release claimed that there were now 300 slots for evidenced-based services -- intensive family-centered therapy for lower-risk and less-violent young criminals. But the data on StateStat (p. 17) say it's only 270 slots.

Even worse, the governor makes no mention of recidivism, the number of youths who are sent back into the justice system within a year. "That rate has actually grown worse in the last year," now up to 57%, Johnese pointed out. Recidivism is so important that ACY makes it one of the 10 measures on its "Maryland Can Do Better for Children" Data Dashboard. In other words, more than half of juvenile criminals return to their equivalent of jail. You can find that on page 23 of the department's latest report on StateStat, which is, by the way, generally the same old 39 pages of numbing statistics, the same old data dump that I cited as hard to decipher both in my May "Perspectives from FSF Scholars" report and in a Sun op-ed.

And what about April's 12% rise in incidents of assaults on juvenile residents in state facilities, 203 incidents among 1,455 juveniles? On the other hand, assaults on staff did go down 12%, but use of "physical restraints" (318 in April) reached a high for the year. What do these numbers mean? Choose your page and pick your statistic, and you see progress for "vulnerable youth" or you see relapse.

For evidence-based services, the data that O'Malley cites "doesn't really tell a particularly meaningful picture because it combines services that treat distinct populations and does not address where the services are available," Matthew Joseph, ACY executive director, said in an e-mail. "When you compare massive increases in incarceration vs. small increases in community-based services, it shows the real priorities of the agency."

Some readers are likely saying to themselves: Sure, these ACY guys just want to spend more money to coddle these delinquents. Actually, said Johnese, ACY studies show that these intensive family-based and community based counseling services cost less and do a better job at keeping these youngsters out of they juvy jails where young thugs become old thugs. By slowing the revolving door of recidivism, the state could ultimately lower costs, ACY maintains.

On the other side of the coin, there's an increasing push for treating more violent juvenile criminals as adults, a legislative push reported on Wednesday by the Sun's Julie Bykowicz, who follows the juvenile justice system closely.

In the press release on StateStat – "the first in a series of StateStat Reports to make Maryland's state government more accountable, open, and transparent" – O'Malley says, "I hope the families of Maryland find these StateStat reports useful in holding their state government accountable."

As I said in the original report, StateStat would be a heck of a lot more useful if the governor and his staff posted their internal analyses and commentary on ALL the data in the department's numbers -- not just pick and choose what makes them look good. Then maybe I wouldn't have to go to lobbying groups like Advocates for Children and Youth to get the story behind the press release.