Juvenile justice chief disappoints early high hopes

2 years later, critics point to inexperience, strained relations

November 12, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

When Gilberto de Jesus was named to head the Department of Juvenile Justice in November 1997, he brought to the job an inspiring life story of a man who rose from the streets of Spanish Harlem to become a Maryland Cabinet secretary.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening beamed as he introduced the immigrants' son at the State House, praising his "gut-level understanding" of the problems facing young people. De Jesus became the state's first Hispanic Cabinet secretary, earning Glendening points with a growing ethnic bloc as the governor geared up for his 1998 re-election campaign.

But critics say the career federal prosecutor brought little besides those credentials to the $112,097-a-year post -- no significant management experience, no expertise in juvenile justice, no strong ties to Maryland.

Two years after his appointment, Maryland's leading advocates for improved juvenile justice are almost unanimous in proclaiming de Jesus a dismal failure. After a poor start, they say, he has not grown in the job.

"It's worse than that. I think he's shrinking on the job," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a juvenile justice consultant who frequently visits Maryland detention facilities.

Rumblings about the department's problems have become serious enough that Glendening -- at the urging of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend -- dispatched a management review team last week to assess the agency and its leaders, while publicly backing de Jesus.

Administration officials and advocates say Glendening doesn't want to offend a growing constituency by firing the only Hispanic member of his Cabinet.

But the department's problems have become a thorn in the side of Townsend, who oversees criminal justice matters for the governor, as she lays the groundwork for a run for governor in 2002. Administration officials say Townsend and her aides have intervened several times in disputes between de Jesus and Jack Nadol, her handpicked deputy secretary.

De Jesus' defense

In an interview this week, de Jesus said he welcomes the review but has no idea what prompted it.

He said much of the criticism results from changes he's bringing to the system, including a heavier emphasis on young offenders' accountability for their actions.

"We're not wedded to following old formulas and keeping people happy," he said. "I would like people to like me, but this is not a popularity contest."

De Jesus said the department's accomplishments under his leadership include opening a long-needed facility for mentally and emotionally disturbed youths, creating a program for delinquent girls, defusing community opposition to a $41 million Juvenile Justice Center under construction in East Baltimore and launching a program putting probation officers in schools.

But advocates say progress made under de Jesus' predecessor in improving conditions at Maryland's antiquated and crowded juvenile detention facilities -- especially Cheltenham Youth Center in Prince George's County -- has ground to a halt.

Meanwhile, the juvenile justice department has been embarrassed by a series of security lapses and reports of abuse of its juvenile charges. Follow-up supervision of juveniles released from boot camps or detention facilities is spotty. Relations with key Juvenile Court judges have been strained over the quality of the department's evaluations of children.

And agency officials acknowledge that they are running a deficit of $6.3 million for reasons that include caseload underestimates, delays in securing grants and difficulties with the year 2000 computer problem.

Susan Leviton, who runs the Juvenile Law Center at the University of Maryland Law Center, said de Jesus is the least well-qualified of the five secretaries she has worked with.

"It just aggravates me that we're always solving our diversity problems on the backs of children," she said. "We don't do that with economic development."

Said Jonathan Dixon, executive director of the Public Justice Center, an advocacy group: "You get a sense of this stagnant department that is just stumbling along."

Glendening press spokesman Mike Morrill said the governor and Townsend have full confidence in de Jesus and all of the department's top managers. He cited data showing juvenile crime decreasing recently as the department monitors and detains more youths.

But Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has identified juvenile justice as a potent issue in the 2002 governor's race. He is focusing his criticism not on de Jesus but on Townsend, a likely rival in that campaign.

"They're not getting the resources they need because it's not a priority for the top state leadership: Glendening-Townsend," Duncan said.

Aggressive prosecutor

Few people in Maryland state government had heard of de Jesus, then a Virginia resident, when Glendening plucked him from the U.S. attorney's office in Washington two years ago to replace Stuart O. Simms, who became secretary of public safety and corrections.

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