State moves to shut facility

Juvenile offenders to be relocated from Cheltenham

Population to fall to 48

Robinson disputes need for legislation

March 01, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

One of the state's largest and most troubled juvenile detention centers will shrink to a shadow of its current population - from about 260 youths to 48 - by this time next year, Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson said yesterday.

"By March of next year, we won't have any more than about 48 beds at Cheltenham," Robinson told the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis. "We are well on our way to closing it."

Many of the young offenders housed in the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County will go to a new detention center in Baltimore that is scheduled to open in March next year. Others will be transferred to community-based treatment programs, juvenile justice officials said.

Robinson's announcement comes amid loud public cries to close Cheltenham, which opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys. Last week, an advocacy group was formed to oppose the facility, which has come under scrutiny for crowding and fire-code violations.

Some child welfare advocates welcomed Robinson's pledge to close Cheltenham, but they nevertheless clashed with him over several juvenile justice reform bills yesterday.

In particular, the Department of Juvenile Justice and advocates disagreed about legislation that would create an independent oversight commission to investigate how children are treated while in the agency's care.

The measure, backed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., would help restore public confidence in a system that was riddled with abuse scandals before Robinson took over in December 1999, advocates said.

While they noted significant improvements since then, they also mentioned fresh horror stories about children being harmed at youth facilities.

Robinson said he does not object to oversight but wants to amend the bill to make sure his authority is not compromised. He said his department has hired five independent monitors who report primarily to him.

He also objected to a bill designed to make sure youth offenders don't languish in detention centers after they have been sentenced.

Calling the present system Kafkaesque, Sharon Rubinstein of Advocates for Children and Youth said some children await placement for the better part of a year.

Robinson defended his department's efforts, noting that two independent groups are studying detention center populations.

"Those people who think all we need is a deadline and it'll be easy to place these kids are sadly mistaken," he said.

Robinson also objected to a bill that would require the department to adhere to clearly defined standards for maintenance, youth-to-staff ratios and staff training. Again, he argued such legislation is unnecessary since he already has developed such standards.

"It's all in place," Robinson said of the various proposals pushed by reform advocates. "These guys accent the negatives from the past, but they're not looking at the positives that are going on right now."

Although the House passed a package of similar bills last session, they died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Sen. Walter M. Baker, the committee chairman, said yesterday that the legislature should not meddle in Robinson's department. "I don't believe all these do-gooder groups have any better judgment than he has," Baker said.

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