Advocates urge more reform in juvenile justice

Coalition, ministers want Cullen jail included in closings

State against citizen oversight

November 29, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

As child advocates gathered at a news conference yesterday to demand reform of Maryland's juvenile justice system, Ronald Davis, feeling lucky to have made it to 20 years old, stood up and told them why there's no time to waste.

Not long ago, Davis said, he was a drug dealer whose business had mixed results: He made a lot of money but got arrested a lot, too, and spent time in all of Maryland's juvenile jails.

"I saw dudes get their ribs broken by staff," he said. "I saw a dude get his arm broken. ... I lived day by day just trying to get big and keep other dudes off my back."

Among the places where he saw guards assaulting juveniles were Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County and Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, he said later.

Cheltenham is scheduled to be reduced in size or closed next year. The advocates held the news conference to say that's not good enough, that they also want Victor Cullen shut down.

The advocates, from the umbrella group Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, joined with Baltimore's Interdenominational Ministerial Association and Davis to respond to news reports that guards have been beating youths at Victor Cullen, Cheltenham and Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

The Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the ministerial alliance and pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East Baltimore, where the news conference was held, said he is livid over the violence at the jails.

More than 70 percent of juveniles who are locked up are black, and the minister, a powerful political figure in the black community, said that fact accounts for foot-dragging toward reform.

"Let the record state that Maryland sanctions abuse in its juvenile justice system for allowing these conditions to persist," he said.

Later, he said, "When confronted with these realities, the only response from our political leadership is to make speeches, call for further study and assemble do-nothing committees."

He said he will meet with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend today and that he intends to tell her that the alliance wants juvenile justice reform to be a top priority.

Perkins and the coalition said they want Gov. Parris N. Glendening to begin steps toward closing Cullen and to immediately form an "independent citizen oversight council" to monitor jails.

A spokesman for the governor said Townsend has ordered Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, to devise an "action plan" by year's end for Victor Cullen, which could include closing it.

The spokesman, Michael Morrill, rejected having private citizens monitor the jails. "We already have an independent monitoring system in place," he said.

State employees within the juvenile justice agency and outside of it are responsible for monitoring, Morrill said.

The coalition represents more than 50 groups, including Annie E. Casey Foundation, Advocates for Children and Youth, the Maryland State Teachers Association and the city Health Department.

Tara Andrews, the coalition's chairwoman, said state officials "have all the evidence they need" to decide to close Victor Cullen.

She said the coalition was not advocating letting violent teens run wild, but diverting money for large institutions to smaller programs based more on treatment.

By the juvenile justice agency's count, about 80 percent of youths in Victor Cullen are there for nonviolent offenses. Conditions make teens worse off when they return to neighborhoods, she said.

"Large institutions do nothing to treat or rehabilitate at-risk youth," Andrews said. "

About one in four youths locked up suffers from a serious mental illness, the juvenile justice agency said. Andrews argued that money for increased mental health services and substance abuse treatment would be freed up if Victor Cullen was closed.

Ronald Davis said the jails taught him only violence and offered him no tools to make it on the streets of Southwest Baltimore, where he grew up.

He works at Sylvan Beach Cafe on Preston Street in the type of program the advocates favor for nonviolent offenders. The cafe is run by the nonprofit Sylvan Beach Foundation. He lives above the business and works there in exchange for room, board, a nominal salary and counseling that focuses on education, self-esteem, drug awareness and decision-making.

"I can say for real that if I didn't find this program, I'd be back on the streets hustling" drugs, he said after the news conference. Learning in the jails was impossible, he said, because it was hard to read when he had to watch his back.

He has been with Sylvan for nine months. He has stayed out of trouble and will take high school equivalency exam next month.

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