Setback on juvenile justice reforms

No oversight panel: How committed is Glendening to ending abuses or to accountability?

April 10, 2000

THE GLENDENING administration undermined a package of juvenile-justice reforms in the legislature last week, raising questions about the governor's commitment to making dramatic changes in this troubled agency.

Essentially, the governor told legislators, "Trust me." His new juvenile services secretary, Bishop L. Robinson, has promised a sweeping overhaul of this dysfunctional department. "We ought to give the new secretary a chance to show that he can do the right thing," the governor said.

But the public has little confidence in an administration that tolerated widespread beatings and other abuses in juvenile boot camps and at other detention facilities. What transpired in Annapolis last week adds to the skepticism.

Even as Mr. Robinson worked with juvenile justice advocates on amendments he could support, the Glendening-Townsend administration undercut that effort. The coup de grace came Thursday, when the governor lowered the boom on the reform package, including a much-needed oversight commission.

The administration's leader on juvenile justice, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, didn't raise a protest. Her earlier support of the reform package evaporated.

It was on Ms. Townsend's watch that the abuses occurred. She and the governor failed to step in to end years of mismanagement at the Department of Juvenile Justice until last fall.

And now these officials say, "Trust me"?

The governor was right in objecting to the original bill, which could have created an intrusive grievance panel undercutting Mr. Robinson's authority. But Mr. Robinson had signed off on a slimmed-down commission bill that would have ensured some degree of public oversight.

That is now lacking. Without an oversight commission, Mr. Glendening and Ms. Townsend could conceivably cover up future troubles in the department. We share the governor's faith in Mr. Robinson, who has a distinguished background in running large law-enforcement and detention agencies. He is a skilled manager who understands the necessity of getting troubled youths effective treatment. The governor has raised the agency's budget by 14 percent, too.

Still, Mr. Robinson "is not Superman," as one reform advocate put it. That's why a review commission is needed.

The new secretary has a chance to form his own oversight panel to evaluate the pace of progress. That would be the best step to overcome the appearance that the Glendening administration is more interested in political damage control than in letting light shine on the future actions of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

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