Robinson plans to stay at Juvenile Justice, objects to oversight bill

Decision to remain hinges on outcome of commission proposal

March 22, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Acting Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson said yesterday that he plans to stay on as head of the troubled department -- but only if the General Assembly abandons plans to create a powerful commission to oversee its operations.

In response, a key legislator said he would consider scaling back the commission's authority, but would continue to press for creation of the oversight panel.

"There needs to be light shone on that system so we know what's going on in there," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who has sponsored a package of juvenile justice reform bills.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and his point person on juvenile issues, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, oppose the creation of an oversight commission, while juvenile advocates say it's an important tool for keeping watch on the agency.

Glendening turned to Robinson in December to run the juvenile justice agency after forcing out five of its top officials. The purge came after reports of widespread mismanagement and physical abuse of youths in the department's care.

The governor has now asked Robinson to stay in the job after his initial commitment ends April 10, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year, sources said.

Robinson said yesterday that he has not made a final decision to stay -- a move that would require him to end his employment with Lockheed Martin Corp. -- but said he would do so if the commission bill is defeated.

"If it dies, I'll stay," he said.

Robinson made clear he relishes the prospect of overhauling the department. "It's a monumental task," he said. "If anybody's been there and seen this thing from the inside, it's me."

But he said he has strong reservations about the pending commission legislation.

In particular, he said he objects to provisions that would give the panel an executive director and seven staff members to monitor the agency. No state department has such an oversight board.

"It creates a second agency having concurrent jurisdiction almost with the department," Robinson said. "We'd get in the way of each other."

Montague said that to allay Robinson's concerns, he was willing to amend the bill to remove some of the commission's staff. But he said the commission remains an important part of the effort to reform the agency.

"This is about the long-term welfare of these children," he said. "Secretaries will come and go."

A leading advocate on juvenile issues agreed that changes are likely in the bill, but defended the concept of an oversight panel.

"This should be an asset to the department, a help to the department -- as long as they're trying to do the right thing," said Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, an umbrella group of child advocacy organizations.

Robinson, a former chief of the Baltimore Police Department, served as Maryland public safety secretary under both former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Glendening.

In his three months at the Department of Juvenile Justice, he has outlined major changes in the agency's operations and has secured a significant increase in its budget for next year.

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