Juvenile care study ordered

Townsend wants racial inequity in sentencing addressed

`Race must never play role'

Mentally ill blacks tend to get jail while whites get treatment

June 26, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ordered top officials at Maryland's juvenile justice and mental health agencies yesterday to figure out why a much higher percentage of black mentally ill juvenile delinquents than white ones are sentenced to jail instead of treatment.

Yesterday's editions of The Sun reported that while many white juvenile delinquents are sent to residential treatment centers, most blacks are sentenced to the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School or the Victor Cullen Academy, which lack treatment.

"The governor and I believe strongly that race-based decision-making in any situation is wrong," Townsend said in a statement. "Race must never play a role in placement or providing treatment to juveniles."

Townsend's office directed Georges C. Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Gilbert de Jesus, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, to come up with answers and solutions.

She told them to meet with representatives of the juvenile courts, attorneys who represent juveniles, advocates for children, and public and private mental health providers to "devise immediate and long-term solutions."

If mental health officials and their juvenile justice counterparts find a solution, it will be a rare consensus.For 13 years, they have been at odds over how to treat mentally ill delinquents and where to treat them.

Hickey School and Victor Cullen are holding about 100 mentally ill delinquents, juvenile justice officials say. The troubled teens are often given tranquilizers or other psychotropic drugs but receive no treatment for their underlying mental problems.

Some mental health officials maintain that juvenile patients in residential treatment centers should be moved into less-secure community-based programs, which do not exist in Maryland. The vacated beds at the treatment centers could then be used for delinquents and other mentally ill juveniles now at Hickey and Victor Cullen.

Juvenile justice officials say the need is immediate and cannot wait for community-based programs to be established.

Benjamin said that not only was he unaware of the disparity among the races in treatment, but that he had not known there were mentally ill juveniles at Hickey School and Victor Cullen.

He said he would move aggressively to get them help, adding, "We obviously need to work harder to get those kids in. I will fix it."

The state's 14 residential treatment centers are at capacity, and many routinely reject mentally ill delinquents sentenced by courts to treatment. The state runs three such centers. The remainder are run by private contractors.

De Jesus said he has formed a committee to determine reasons for the racial disparity in sentencing. It was his department, he noted, that discovered the racial disparity. "We haven't tried to sweep it under the rug," he said.

He said he will continue to push for more beds at residential treatment facilities because Hickey School and Victor Cullen are inappropriate settings for many troubled delinquents.

"We've been saying all along that there's a need for more beds in the residential treatment centers than we have," de Jesus said. "That should be clear to everybody."

Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a statewide advocacy group, said he agrees that some mentally ill delinquents held at Hickey and Victor Cullen need treatment those institutions cannot provide.

But he said more beds at residential treatment centers are not the answer. His group is in favor of moving kids from the treatment centers into the community.

"Whatever the answer is," he added, "people are finally starting to focus on finding a solution."

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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