Robinson gets mixed reviews

Juvenile justice chief seen from 2 sides as reformer, bureaucrat Robinson gets mixed job reviews

March 05, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Bishop L. Robinson owns a set of bookends carved from the granite that once held up the vermin-infested South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary -- the same building dubbed by state officials in the 1980s as "the innermost circle of hell." As Maryland's public safety chief, Robinson vowed to tear it down and did.

Now he's determined to get another pair of bookends, this time from the walls of the Cheltenham Youth Facility, the notoriously crowded detention center in Prince George's County.

"When I was a kid ... I'd stand on the corner and hear those stories about Cheltenham, about kids being beaten and abused," says Robinson, 74. "Little did I know then that I'd be in a position to do something about it."

Since Robinson took over the state Department of Juvenile Justice, an agency fraught with problems, almost everyone who cares about youth crime has watched him with the kind of intensity and hope usually reserved for biblical prophets.

If anyone can rescue the department, the belief goes, it is Robinson, a man who enjoys a golden reputation and excellent relationships with lawmakers.

While youth advocates praise the new secretary's philosophy and the changes he has made since he took over last year, some worry that a type of personality cult around Robinson will hamper meaningful reform.

They criticize his timeline for closing Cheltenham and for increasing alternative treatment options as too slow, as well as his opposition to legislation they say would force accountability on a system for which public confidence is weak at best. These concerns have led some to ask whether he is a reformer or too much the bureaucrat.

"Bishop Robinson's been there a while now," says Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "At the end of the day, it's a little less crowded at Cheltenham. But the day-to-day life of the kids hasn't changed all that much. Things in the department have gone from very, very bad to very bad. If I had to give him a grade, I'd give him an incomplete."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend agrees that Robinson has a long way to go, but she's pleased so far. "I think Bishop is getting the department in hand and is moving forward," she says. "We're undertaking a very big change in the department. This is not going to happen quickly and this is not going to happen easily."

In December 1999, Robinson was easing into comfortable semiretirement as a Lockheed Martin Corp. consultant when the governor and lieutenant governor called him in the same hour asking him to investigate staff abuses at three boot camps for troubled youth.

A former Baltimore City police commissioner and state public safety secretary, Robinson delivered a scalding critique of the camps and of the department, which he pronounced dysfunctional. In the aftermath, Secretary Gilberto de Jesus and four other top officials were fired or resigned.

Robinson officially took over in April. Employing a style described by some as militaristic, he has reorganized the department's management structure and priorities.

Lee Towers, an agency spokesman, says: "He doesn't suffer a fool gladly. Especially now when we're under a microscope, he wants results."

Nor does he suffer critics gladly. Asked about complaints that he's not moving fast enough to close Cheltenham, he says, "I vowed to demolish Cheltenham before any of these folks said a word."

Last week, during General Assembly hearings on juvenile justice bills, his agency came under attack by youth advocates. Robinson slipped outside to smoke, declaring: "I've brought about more change to this outfit in one year than anybody else, and I can prove it. Print that!"

His core objectives, Robinson says, are to reduce recidivism and to make sure only high-risk kids are in detention.

He has created an office of Professional Responsibility and Accountability, which investigates abuse. It has audited Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County and is assessing Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill, two other troubled youth facilities. Five independent monitors have been hired to check on the agency's facilities.

For the first time in years, advocates say, people are getting fired for harming children under state care.

Robinson also has asked the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to increase services for the roughly 2,500 children under his agency's wing. Johns Hopkins Hospital and other groups are studying the detention population to determine their needs.

A new "aftercare" program to reintegrate kids into their communities is under way, and Robinson has hired 24 case workers to run it. He has published a code of conduct for staff and standards for detention facilities. He also plans to open community-based treatment centers and neighborhood "reporting centers" for kids on probation.

And Robinson has asked for cooperation from other state agencies and the courts.

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