Townsend sees a `road map' to fix agency

Reforms are close in Juvenile Justice, she maintains

Skeptics express doubts

March 21, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Finally, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said after a task force reported to her this month, a "road map" exists to fix the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

Real juvenile justice reforms, Townsend said, are on the horizon.

Finally, she vowed, the state will move away from holding mentally disturbed delinquents for months at a time with no treatment, from overcrowded juvenile jails, from a system in which guards assault teens and delinquents rarely have to live up to the terms of their probation.

But those skeptical of Townsend's ability to follow through with the task force's recommendations have reason to doubt these promises: The lieutenant governor has known for years about the same severe problems noted by the recent task force.

And despite a long history of promises by her that a system handling 55,000 troubled and often-dangerous teens a year would be fixed, advocates say little or nothing has been done to improve it.

"We've been yelling for many, many years," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Center on Juvenile Crime and Justice, an advocacy group in Washington. "There has been ample evidence in the past of serious problems. It's not as if nobody knew."

The recent task force was hastily created in December by Townsend and Gov. Parris N. Glendening after reports of abuse at the state's boot camps for juveniles and of widespread failings in its probation programs.

The task force was necessary, Townsend and Glendening said, to determine what precisely was wrong with the juvenile justice agency and to come up with ways to improve it.

The panel also gave Townsend, as the governor's designated "point person" on criminal justice matters, the appearance of decisively dealing with the December reports of big problems within the juvenile justice agency -- which posed the first big crisis of her political career.

But the panel, which presented Townsend and the governor Feb. 28 with a scathing report detailing inadequacies at the agency, was not the first body to warn of the serious problems.

In fact, the problems noted by that task force -- overcrowding, inadequate treatment for mental health problems, violence at state facilities, no treatment or punishment for probation violators -- were identified more than three years ago.

The problems were identified by an earlier group, the Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform, which warned that a combination of an increasing number of juveniles and an ineffective juvenile justice agency were placing Maryland in the way of an "impending crisis."

That report was delivered to Townsend in January 1997.

In a recent interview, Townsend said the 1997 report called for "graduated sanctions," a system in which juveniles face increasingly harsh punishments for repeat offenses. That has led to more juveniles being placed in detention facilities during her tenure, she said, so parts of the 1997 report were acted on.

"I'm a leader," she said. "I take responsibility for any shortcomings. Clearly, there's a lot more to be done. But this sense that we had task-force recommendations and didn't do anything is just wrong."

Aside from locking more teens away, Townsend could not detail any recommendations from the 1997 report that were followed. Asked if any findings were in the more recent task force report that she was previously not aware of, Townsend could not name one.

"What they did was lay out in a very clear way what the problems are and what needs to be done," she said.

The problems noted by the recent task force were severe, but a cursory review of the juvenile justice agency could have identified many of them, advocates say.

For example, recordkeeping at the agency is so bad that the files of some of the delinquents do not include their criminal records. A recent audit of files found more than 60 percent of jailed teens are released to the streets with no treatment plan and little prospect for meaningful supervision from probation officers.

As for installing a system of graduated sanctions -- one of the improvements Townsend noted as a result of the 1997 task force -- the more recent task force found that they are applied so haphazardly that teens' home neighborhoods rather than their offenses help determine punishments. The concept of increasingly harsh punishments, the recent panel concluded, had not reached the juvenile justice agency in any meaningful way.

Part of the reason, said Jack Nadol, former agency undersecretary, is that the Glendening-Townsend administration would not make juvenile justice a priority.

"We told them and told them that we couldn't survive, definitely couldn't make any improvements without more money to get some treatment for these kids and to hire some probation officers," said Nadol, who was ousted along with his boss, agency head Gilberto deJesus, immediately after the boot camp reports. "They barely gave us enough money to keep things going the way they were, never mind making improvements."

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