Juvenile agency oversight proposed

Independent review would protect youth, state legislator says

January 27, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Kate Shatzkin | Thomas W. Waldron and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Responding to widespread problems in Maryland's juvenile justice agency, a key legislator and child advocates are calling for the creation of an independent commission to monitor the agency and its detention facilities.

The commission would investigate reports of abuse and oversee agency functions in an effort to ensure that the troubled Department of Juvenile Justice is righting itself after the departures last month of its secretary and four top employees.

The department leaders either resigned or were fired amid allegations of mismanagement in the agency and reports in The Sun that juvenile detainees at state boot camps were beaten.

"Clearly, right now, there needs to be some supervision outside the juvenile justice administration -- mainly for the protection of these kids," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who is preparing legislation that would create the commission.

The bill is part of a package the Baltimore Democrat plans to introduce in the General Assembly -- measures that would give judges more authority in juvenile sentencing, encourage the use of community programs rather than detention, and limit the time juveniles could be held before going to court or being assigned to a treatment program.

Glendening administration officials said they would defer comment until they had seen Montague's proposals.

The governor is expected to propose his own package of reforms that focus less on changes in the law and more on strengthening the department's management and bolstering its funding.

Among other things, the administration is expected to move to improve the department's internal monitoring of juvenile abuse and establish a system of external oversight by another state agency, sources said.

Bishop L. Robinson, the acting secretary of juvenile justice, said he had no objection to the idea of an oversight commission, if the oversight was "appropriate."

But he said the package of proposed reforms seemed premature with the agency lacking a permanent leader.

Robinson originally agreed to stay in the job until early next month but has since agreed to stay until April 10, the end of the legislative session.

"This doesn't seem to me to be a fair way to do business with a department that is sort of in limbo in trying to find leadership," said Robinson, the former state public safety secretary.

"This place can be turned around, I know that. But it can't be turned around overnight. Too much has been done in the past two years that was not, shall we say, appropriate," Robinson said. "I think people have to be reasonable."

The agency has been under fire since a series last month in The Sun documented that guards at one of the camps abused delinquents.

The series also found that the state failed to monitor youths who graduated from the camp, allowing them to quickly fall back into crime.

A governor's task force subsequently found a pattern of abuse at the three Western Maryland boot camps dating to 1996. A child advocate at one of the camps told the task force she had witnessed abuse and tried to report it to her superiors -- but said the problems continued, and she was excluded from witnessing inductions at the camps.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening declined comment yesterday on Montague's call for an independent monitoring commission, saying he had not seen the proposal. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who oversees juvenile justice matters for the administration, was not available for comment.

The governor has proposed a 14 percent increase in the department's budget for next year and said more funding would be announced in coming weeks, once a thorough review of the agency is finished.

Montague has been a leading voice in the General Assembly on juvenile justice issues and heads a House subcommittee that handles such legislation.

Some of his proposals have been rejected by the Assembly in prior years, largely because of budgetary concerns.

But Montague said the bills could have a better chance of passage this year because of the highly publicized turmoil in the department and because of the state's strong budgetary position.

"We have plenty of money, and public attention is focused on this," Montague said. "I'm sure the public did not like having to read about state institutions allowing these things to happen."

One of the measures would strictly limit the time juveniles could be held in detention. Under his bill, youths waiting for a court date could be held no longer than seven days, and no more than 15 days before being sent to a treatment program.

Juvenile offenders are sometimes held for months before being placed in treatment programs, largely because no places are available.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat who oversees the department's budget, said such a proposal would need careful review since it would have major budget implications.

"It would obviously cost significantly more," Kopp said. "We would have to develop the correct placement more quickly. But it's a goal that I think we would agree with."

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