State justice agency goes under scrutiny

Experts to assess juvenile detention operations in Md.

November 06, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In the wake of a string of security lapses and incidents of abuse at state juvenile justice facilities, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is dispatching a team of management experts to improve the troubled Department of Juvenile Justice.

Mike Morrill, Glendening's chief press spokesman, said the governor and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend decided to send in the team after hearing "a few little rumblings" about problems in the department.

The experts -- known unofficially in state government circles as a "SWAT team" -- will spend an estimated two to four months assessing the operations and procedures of the department, Morrill said.

The governor's action follows a series of well-publicized problems at the agency, including escapes, the rape of an employee by an inmate, the impregnation of an inmate by a guard, complaints of overcrowding and poor conditions at detention facilities, and a report in The Sun that black delinquents needing mental health services are getting locked up at a disproportionate rate.

The action comes less than a week after juvenile justice re form advocates met with Glendening and Townsend to air complaints.

It also follows the convening this week by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan of a Montgomery County task force to address statewide juvenile justice problems. Duncan is a potential rival of Townsend in the 2002 Democratic primary for governor.

That task force is widely viewed as an effort by Duncan to gain ammunition against Townsend, who has been the governor's point person on juvenile justice issues.

Addressing one of Duncan's main concerns yesterday, state budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester said the administration will speed up construction of a 24-bed juvenile detention facility in Western Maryland.

He said the decision to spend more than $6 million next year to build the Hagerstown facility was at the urging of Townsend in order to relieve crowding at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville.

Jim McComb, chairman the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said the management review at the Department of Juvenile Justice is badly needed.

"This is a department with management problems. They need to look at it from top to bottom," McComb said. "Right now, we have more of a juvenile injustice system than a juvenile justice system."

Morrill said the decision to send in the team of senior state management experts does not signal any lack of confidence in Secretary Gilberto de Jesus, Deputy Secretary Jack Nadol or other members of the department's management.

He defended the department, saying it is "making a difference" in the fight against juvenile crime. "We periodically send management teams into agencies. Usually it's when we've heard some issues there," he said.

"The bottom line is that the agency is getting terrific results. The secretary and his staff are doing a terrific job," Morrill said.

Puddester said use of a management review team, made up of employees of the Department of Budget and Management, is "fairly routine." He noted that another team is evaluating operations of the Department of Labor and Licensing.

But a high-level department official disputed that: "Why would he [the governor] send in a SWAT team if he's got full confidence?" the official said.

Through a spokesman, de Jesus welcomed the management review.

"We have already had a number of internal discussions regarding the infrastructure and functions of the department, and we look forward to gaining the insight and support of the management review team," he said.

Adam Gelb, Townsend's chief adviser on crime issues, said there was a 16 percent decrease in juvenile arrests for violent crimes between 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, he said, the administration has cut in half the number of juvenile cases that have been "resolved at intake" -- bureaucratic parlance for a slap on the wrist.

But as serious juvenile crime has decreased, concerns about the department's performance have mounted in the wake of several well-publicized incidents:

The rape of a nurse in June by a detainee at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, a detention facility operated by a private contractor for the department.

The escape of two juveniles at Hickey four days later.

The discovery in June that a counselor at the Cheltenham Youth Center in Prince George's County had impregnated a teen-ager at the juvenile jail -- a revelation that cost the facility's superintendent his job.

A report in The Sun that the department has locked up black delinquents with mental health problems at a greater rate than young white offenders.

A Montgomery County judge's ruling in September that a youth involved in a gang rape must be released because the department failed to provide the juvenile with proper sex offender counseling at Hickey.

And there have been continuing complaints by outside advocates about serious overcrowding and substandard conditions at Cheltenham, Noyes and other detention facilities.

McComb welcomed the decision to speed construction of the Hagerstown facility, noting that crowding at Noyes was one of the issues advocates raised with Glendening and Townsend. "There's absolutely no excuse for putting 106 human beings in a [facility] built for 26," he said.

Duncan said yesterday that relieving crowding at Noyes is an issue he has been raising with Glendening and Townsend for several months.

"I'm glad they've finally started listening," Duncan said. "The need has been there for several years. The problem has been that juvenile justice in general has not been a priority for this administration."

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