Juvenile Justice must be 'rebuilt'

Robinson says agency 'remained relatively unchanged since 1966'

February 01, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,Sun Staff

In a blistering assessment of Maryland's juvenile justice system, its acting secretary said yesterday that attacks by guards against delinquents at three state boot camps were part of a dysfunctional agency left a shambles by mismanagement.

Mentally ill youth are being jailed unnecessarily, drug abusers are not receiving treatment and probation is a grab bag of often-ineffective programs that has gone unevaluated for years, Secretary Bishop L. Robinson told a legislative hearing.

Summoned to Annapolis by lawmakers, Robinson told a Senate subcommittee that oversees the Department of Juvenile Justice that the agency cannot merely be tinkered with and is in dire need of an overhaul.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening named Robinson acting secretary in December after ousting Secretary Gilberto de Jesus and four of his aides. De Jesus was forced out in mid-December, a week after The Sun ran a series of articles documenting beatings against delinquents at the state-run camps and the failures of the probation system for juveniles.

For the first time, Robinson, a former Baltimore police commissioner and state prisons chief, said publicly yesterday that he is considering an offer from the governor to become the permanent secretary.

Before doing so, he made it clear that whoever takes the post will have a lot of work to do. "This agency, based on all my reading and all my interviews, has remained relatively unchanged since 1966," he said. "Basically, it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, from the front end to the back end."

Speaking and fielding questions from subcommittee members for about 90 minutes, Robinson said violence at the Garrett County boot camps was allowed to occur because they received little oversight from Baltimore or Annapolis.

"My findings were that the camps basically operated in isolation," Robinson said. "There were no internal controls to monitor the operations of the camps."

The camps invented their own "use of force" policy, separate from that used by every other juvenile facility in the state, he said, adding that forms completed by guards to document how injuries to the juveniles occurred were "suspect" but tolerated by camp administrators.

For example, a juvenile taken to the hospital for stitches was injured, according to a camp guard's report, by purposely banging his head into the pavement during a struggle. Other reports said juveniles injured themselves by falling down stairs or resisting guards.

In chronicling assaults against a group of 14 juveniles known as Charlie Squad at one of the camps over 20 weeks, The Sun also cited internal agency reports that showed dozens of cases of delinquents being injured by guards.

Before Glendening appointed him acting secretary, Robinson led a task force to look into the newspaper reports. The panel quickly concluded that guards had been beating juveniles at the camps since the first one opened in 1996 and that top state officials knew of the assaults but failed to stop them. The governor and Lt.

Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend suspended the camps the next day.

Glendening and Townsend had ordered any abuses to stop in August, they said, after the newspaper began asking questions about attacks on Charlie Squad. After the articles were published, Glendening and Townsend said that de Jesus had assured them that there were no problems at the camps.

Robinson's panel reported that the beatings were widespread, often severe and continued into December, months after the governor and lieutenant governor first learned of them.

Former state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, who served on the task force, told the subcommittee yesterday that guards at the camps were out of control. "Administratively, it was a mess," the Prince George's Democrat said. "It was breaking legs, knocking teeth out of mouths, that sort of thing."

Nevertheless, Trotter and Robinson told the subcommittee that they favored the boot camp concept.

Robinson, one of the architects of Maryland's adult boot camps, which began operating in 1990, said that juvenile camps should be designed for nonviolent offenders and that guards should be better trained. Half of the guards at the Garrett camps had been disciplined for various offenses over the past two years, he said.

"When you see a pattern of disciplinary problems like that," he said, "you have a training problem."

Robinson said he is working with the governor and lieutenant governor to determine what to do with the camps, which are now being used to house delinquents without the military components. One of the camps, the Meadow Mountain Leadership Challenge, is to be converted into a residential treatment center for substance abusers, he said.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, said Robinson's report that mentally ill delinquents were being jailed rather than treated did not surprise her; nor did reports that the agency's facilities are overcrowded, supervision is lacking and probation

programs are a mess.

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