Senators wary of juvenile panel bill

Amended measure unlikely to pass Baker committee

April 05, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The sponsor of legislation to create an independent panel to monitor Maryland's troubled juvenile justice agency has agreed to water down the bill in hopes a skeptical Senate committee will pass it.

Even with the amendments, the bill might not survive a vote this week in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

The committee's point man on juvenile justice issues, Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, said yesterday he is inclined to give acting Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson the freedom to run the agency without having to worry about an oversight commission.

"We want him to come in and clean up the department, and we have to give him the freedom to do that," said Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I don't think we want to micromanage him."

Of the proposed legislation, Jimeno said, "I think it's going to be very difficult to get this passed."

Jimeno made the comments after the committee held a hearing yesterday on Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr.'s proposal to create a 14-member independent oversight commission to monitor the Department of Juvenile Justice.

When it passed the House of Delegates, the bill would have given the commission the authority to oversee the agency's facilities and programs, which have been under sharp criticism in recent months.

Montague said yesterday he is willing to accept an amendment Robinson proposed that would restrict the commission's oversight to department facilities, not the after-care programs that were cause of equal concern.

He played down the changes, preferring to stress the value of having an independent commission that can go behind the closed doors of Maryland's juvenile justice system.

"This is a first step. We don't feel we have to have everything," Montague said. "My point is there are plenty of groups in the advocacy community who can monitor [after-care]. That will not be forgotten."

Key committee members have backed away from the idea of looking over Robinson's shoulder. Robinson, former state prisons chief and Baltimore police commissioner, commands immense respect in Annapolis.

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

Robinson would not comment yesterday.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, committee chairman, said he wanted to talk to Robinson before taking a position on the bill. Over the years, Baker has expressed strong dislike for commissions.

Another committee member, Sen. Richard F. Colburn, echoed Jimeno's sentiments.

"The hope is that Bishop Robinson will oversee the department, and that's all the oversight I feel we need," said Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican.

Montague said he has worked hard to make the bill acceptable and has fought off some of the department's harsher proposals.

Department officials wanted to "take out the right of parents and attorneys or guardians to bring a grievance," Montague said. "That is the sunlight we're talking about shining into these institutions."

Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Commission, an umbrella organization for child advocacy groups, said that with the proposed changes, the commission could still "go in and determine that [youths] are not being hurt, that they're being served."

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