Recent media coverage of juvenile crime issues in Maryland should have us all worried. We lived through the “super-predator” era of the 1990s, when America’s young people were vilified as “godless, fatherless, and without conscience” and in need of being “brought to heel.”

We have run two juvenile justice agencies between us and have worked a combined 65 years in the field of youth justice. Based on our experience, we urge Maryland residents, and especially Maryland policymakers, to apply their best critical judgment to sensationalized media coverage, follow evidence and common decency, and support best practices when it comes to setting policy affecting the state’s young people.

Recently, for example, Baltimore’s Fox 45 television station and The Baltimore Sun — the former under the ownership of the Sinclair Broadcast Group and the latter now purchased by its former CEO — ran similar stories about a 16-year-old incident that occurred when Vincent Schiraldi, now head of Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services, was running the Washington, D.C., juvenile justice agency.

For the second year in a row, Schiraldi had allowed youth in his facility to participate in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Secondary School Festival — a competition among regional high school students performing abridged versions of the Bard’s plays. After an excellent performance attended by elected officials, judges and the participants’ families, Schiraldi invited the young performers and some staff to his home for a celebratory barbecue. After one of the young people fled — and was arrested several weeks later — Schiraldi was criticized by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General.

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As we grapple with how the criminal justice system should handle young people in Maryland and throughout the country, it’s important to unpack the recent media coverage of this long-ago event as an object lesson. When Schiraldi took over D.C.’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, it had been under court oversight for two decades after findings of brutality and other misconduct. The court monitor had documented physical and sexual abuse of incarcerated youth, drugs were rampant, community programs for youth were severely limited and the facility itself was physically decrepit.

Schiraldi’s leadership transformed that system. He established a network of community programs that judges used in lieu of dangerous incarceration. As the population declined, he opened a state-of-the-art smaller facility that eliminated solitary confinement, increased treatment and dramatically reduced violence — all while reducing recidivism for kids brought into the system. There was also a significant reduction in the number of young people on runaway status from their community placements, from 26% of them committed to the department in 2003 to 5% in 2009, according to a document the department issued.

Plaintiffs’ counsel in the lawsuit that resulted in court oversight testified that more progress occurred in three years under Schiraldi’s leadership than in the previous two decades and that there were no longer any constitutional violations in the facility.

D.C.’s juvenile system had been like many others — found to be habitually dehumanizing kids in a misguided effort to achieve public safety. The inspector general’s report went so far as to criticize Schiraldi for not shackling the young people hand and foot during the time they were at his house and at the theater. Not one young white person was sentenced to the D.C. system during Schiraldi’s entire five-year term, so the shackling was being recommended for children who are Black or brown.

During the past decade, the number of young people in custody nationally and in Maryland has declined significantly, alongside declining juvenile crime rates. State after state has launched programs — many based on Schiraldi’s transformative work in D.C. — to help young people thrive in their own communities rather than face the harsh conditions that characterize too many youth facilities.

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In short, Schiraldi has been a national leader in the effort to both reduce crime and treat young people the way any of us would want our own children treated if they were in trouble. Gov. Wes Moore was right to recruit him to lead the Department of Juvenile Services and should be applauded for standing up to unwarranted media criticism that demonizes young people of color. At the end of the day, Maryland will be better off if it implements long-overdue reforms.

Clinton Lacey is former director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and executive director of the Credible Messenger Mentoring Movement. Patrick McCarthy is former president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and former director of the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.