ANNAPOLIS -- The Schaefer administration is moving fast to hire a private company to take over the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the state's troubled juvenile reformatory in Baltimore County.
Many of the 396 state workers now employed there might lose their jobs in the change.
"No matter what you do, it can't get any worse than what's up there," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday as he and the Board of Public Works formally approved a request by the Department of Juvenile Services to use a fast-track process to solicit competitive bids from potential operators.
Juvenile Services officials sent a Request for Proposals (RFP) last Friday to 35 private companies and expect replies by June 17. If all goes as planned, a company would be hired by July 15 and within 45 days would be given full control of Hickey.
"I think it is an opportunity to restructure this program from scratch," said Nancy Grasmick, the state's new secretary of juvenile services. "I think that change can take place more precipitously doing that with a private vendor."
A report earlier this year by the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center described Hickey as a violent place where young inmates frequently assault the staff and each other and get little real help to change their behavior. Some critics also have complained that guards at Hickey are not trained to deal with difficult youngsters.
Many legislators have argued that the state should be able to get a far better program for what it is spending. It costs about $48,000 a year to keep each youngster there.
Similar criticisms prompted the state to close its other reformatory, the Montrose School, three years ago, and Hickey is the only facility designed to hold those juvenile offenders who are regarded as a potential threat to the public safety. In turning it over to a contractor, Maryland will, in effect, be putting its only juvenile prison in private hands. Nationally, a few state and local governments are letting private contractors operate such facilities, but most run their own.
Mrs. Grasmick said the broadly written request for proposals would give potential operators the opportunity to suggest innovative changes in the school's operation, but said details of what the operator would be required to do would be worked out during contract negotiations.
Though she said the size of Hickey may be reduced in the future, the five-year contract -- which could be worth as much as $80 million -- will be based on the assumption Hickey will serve about 360 youths, as it does now. About a third of them are awaiting trial. The remainder were ordered to the school after being found guilty of offenses that include armed robbery, assault, auto thefts and drug dealing.
The request also says the contractor must offer a special education program, vocational training, and psychological and psychiatric services and provide a program of "aftercare" in which it will continue to work with youngsters and their families after the youths are released.
Unlike adults, juvenile offenders are not "sentenced" for a specific period of time, but are committed to Hickey until they are, at least in theory, rehabilitated. The request is based on the premise that most youths will stay at Hickey an average of seven months.
The proposal also says the facility will house only delinquent males. An average of 13 girls now are housed at Hickey, and Juvenile Services officials say they are looking for another place to put them.
"We haven't relinquished custody of these young people. That's still the department's responsibility," Mrs. Grasmick said.
A union representing some of the 400 state employees who might lose their jobs at Hickey immediately threatened to sue.
"There are people who have been there for years and years who are going to be just thrown out in the cold. It's terrible. And the whole thing was done very coldheartedly," said William Bolander, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 92.
Hickey's workers, he said, have been blamed unfairly for problems he attributed to the management policies of former Juvenile Services Secretary Linda D'Amario Rossi.
Mr. Bolander said the union could not prevent the state from eliminating jobs at Hickey, but said the union may challenge in court the manner in which the jobs are being cut. The administration plan, he complained, will deny workers so-called bumping rights that would have allowed them to claim the jobs of less-senior workers elsewhere in the Juvenile Services Department.
Governor Schaefer first proposed the so-called "privatization" of Hickey in his January State of the State address, and the General Assembly gave him the flexibility to do it by abolishing the school's 396 jobs, but not the money for their salaries. Some of the employees could be rehired by the private company, but none of them has any guarantee of employment beyond Sept. 1.