Juvenile justice overhaul is urged

Experts tell task force system fails to track, treat delinquents

February 12, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Education experts, substance abuse workers and representatives of the judiciary proposed an overhaul of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice yesterday, characterizing the agency as dangerously inept at treating and tracking the state's delinquents.

The agency routinely misdiagnoses offenders, preventing them from getting such help as substance abuse treatment, the experts told a state task force. And even the teens assigned to appropriate programs often go untreated because of insurance problems or because they refuse to attend.

The remarks, made to a task force appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening to fix the state's juvenile probation system, were among the most critical of the agency offered in several meetings of experts who work with teen offenders.

Two of the state's most respected judges recommended that the secretary of the department serve at the pleasure of a board, rather than of the governor, to bring continuity to the department and help rid it of political influence.

"The fact is, without strong leadership at the top -- without that change -- none of the other recommendations are going to mean anything," said Judge Dennis M. McHugh of the Montgomery County Circuit Court. "The person in charge has to understand juvenile justice and understand how to make things happen."

Glendening is searching for a juvenile justice secretary to replace Gilberto de Jesus, whom he ousted in December amid newspaper reports that juveniles at boot camps were being beaten and that the after-care system for delinquents on probation is in shambles. Bishop L. Robinson, a former Baltimore police commissioner and secretary of the state's public safety department, is serving as acting secretary. He has said he is considering the governor's offer of a permanent appointment.

But Robinson has said that regardless of who runs the agency, virtually every facet of the system needs reorganization.

Many of the problems with after-care have been known for years by officials, including Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Glendening administration's point-person on crime. But advocates for juvenile justice reforms are hopeful that recent attention on the agency will pressure Townsend and the legislature to make substantive changes.

Judge Martin P. Welch of the Baltimore City Circuit Court joined McHugh in recommending the secretary be moved from direct control of the governor. He also called for more training for judges and workers in the agency and for judges to have the power to order specific, probation-related after-care programs.

Judges can order probation, but their power to specify programs is limited.

"After-care has not been part of the culture in the disposition of these cases," Welch said before addressing the task force. "We need to understand what the after-care system is and possibly go as far as requiring hearings to make sure the after-care programs are being carried out."

Juvenile delinquents often have been able to ignore terms of their probation with no penalty, partly because some probation officers, overwhelmed by huge caseloads, are unable to track the delinquents assigned to them. And even if they are tracked, the state's juvenile jails are already filled to or beyond capacity.

Peter Luongo, a manager with Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services, said the juvenile justice agency knows what needs to be done, but has been unable or unwilling to do it.

"The knowledge base of substance abuse and mental health issues simply hasn't penetrated," he said. "What's in practice is so dated as to be frightening."

Montgomery has revamped its social services and juvenile justice programs to address the need for early treatment of delinquents, be it through mental health programs or help overcoming substance abuse, Luongo said. But he added that county workers were flabbergasted to discover the state's juvenile justice agency was unwilling or unable to allow its social service workers to assess delinquents to determine how to best treat them.

Albert M. Powell, a psychiatrist from Frederick who has spent decades working with youth in various state institutions, told the task force that scores of mentally ill teens have been sent to facilities unequipped to deal sufficiently with their problems. Some studies have shown, for example, that up to 60 percent of the delinquents at the Charles H. Hickey School are in need of mental health help that they are not receiving.

"These are young people with substance abuse problems, with significant depression, with suicidal ideations," he said.

Treatment in the institutions can help dictate what treatment is appropriate when the offenders are released, he said, but misdiagnoses are common because there are too many delinquents and too few trained staff.

Rock Cioni, program director of the Jackson Unit, a substance abuse center in Cumberland, said his staff routinely creates after-care programs for its delinquents prior to their release. And just as routinely, he said, the after-care programs are ignored -- not just by the teens, but by their probation officers.

Compliance with the programs varies not only from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but from probation officer to probation officer.

"There just isn't the type of intensive supervision our kids need," Cioni said. "Here we are in the year 2000, and I don't think the folks in the Department of Juvenile Justice have gotten the message yet."

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