Plan for end of Cheltenham outlined

Juvenile agency's budget likely to face vote today

March 06, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

A wrecking ball will swing at the infamous Cheltenham Youth Facility two years from now if all goes according to plans that Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson submitted to legislators yesterday.

Since taking over the agency in December 1999, Robinson has vowed to tear down Cheltenham, a crowded, outdated detention center in Prince George's County that has come to symbolize the worst of the agency's problems.

Yesterday marked the first time Robinson laid out a specific timetable for destroying Cheltenham, which holds about 260, mostly African-American youths from Baltimore.

He wants to replace the existing buildings with two 24-bed facilities for high-risk offenders by October 2003, Robinson told a General Assembly panel likely to vote today on his department's proposed $180 million budget for next year.

In the past few weeks, youth advocates have been clamoring for Cheltenham's immediate closure. Advocates, Baltimore-area clergy and young people from Washington-based activist groups holding signs and puppets crowded outside the hearing room yesterday.

Although they applauded Robinson's vision of small, modern detention centers in place of the six "cottages" built in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys, several youth advocates remained dissatisfied, saying 48 beds at Cheltenham was still too many.

They also demanded the facility be closed more quickly and its budget diverted to alternative treatment programs. A few people questioned whether Robinson would stick to his proposed schedule without legislative prodding.

"If they don't put it in the budget language, this all could be an empty promise if Bishop ends up sitting on the beach in the Caribbean two years from now," said Heather Ford, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery County Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that will vote on the agency's spending plan, said her panel was likely to attach such a statement to Robinson's budget.

"We certainly want to recognize his intent to downsize Cheltenham, to tear down the old building and perhaps to construct two new small buildings," Kopp said.

Because Robinson's proposal depends on available space at other detention and treatment centers, Kopp added, the subcommittee would probably stop short of recommending a decrease in Cheltenham's operating budget.

Robinson's plan is to decrease the Cheltenham population in the next two years by sending youths to community detention facilities and into an expanded electronic-monitoring program.

Those who don't qualify for either option will be transferred to the Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore due to open by next March. Two Cheltenham cottages will stay open to house 48 high-risk delinquents from Southern Maryland.

Robinson said he plans to ask the governor to allocate $1.2 million in the budget he presents to the legislature next year for demolition work and construction of the two 24-bed buildings, to be completed by October 2003.

In addition, Robinson wants to keep an existing 12-bed shelter for nonviolent youths awaiting sentencing who can't go home, and a 20-bed "Impact Program" for short-term supervision.

Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, warned against maintaining those additional structures. "That's starting to be an institution," he said.

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