Independent panel sought to oversee juvenile justice sites

Head of department says current monitoring program is adequate

February 27, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland should create an independent commission to oversee the state Juvenile Justice Department, which has been rocked by repeated reports of abuse, youth advocates told lawmakers yesterday.

The state juvenile justice secretary, Bishop L. Robinson, said such a panel is not necessary because a monitoring program hastily created two years ago in response to findings of violence against teen-agers is working adequately.

"To have novice independent monitors checking out our facilities is not going to be as beneficial as a professional," Robinson said. "I believe everything is in place."

Robinson presented the latest defense of his agency yesterday, fending off charges from critics of the department and lawmakers who have said it has failed to make progress after revelations about its failings.

In November, The Sun reported that guards frequently injured young male criminals being held at the state's three largest youth detention facilities and that youth-on-youth violence was common.

Robinson initially disputed the newspaper's accounts in testimony before lawmakers but backtracked when his figures on numbers of incidents proved to be inaccurate. Department officials could not provide corrected statistics to members of the House Judiciary Committee seeking the information yesterday.

The newspaper reports followed by about two years other articles that detailed guards' abuse of teens at Western Maryland boot camps. Those articles prompted the creation of the current monitoring system.

"Despite the best efforts and the best intent, we have a problem here that has not gotten better," said James P. McComb, former chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, an umbrella group.

"Some of us are tired of giving the benefit of the doubt to this department," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Calvert County Republican. "Some of us think the Glendening-Townsend administration has done nothing."

The judiciary committee heard testimony yesterday on 10 bills that would alter functions of the Juvenile Justice Department. The proposal for an independent oversight commission, co-sponsored by 45 of the 141 members of the House of Delegates, generated the most discussion. Similar legislation failed in the 2000 and 2001 General Assembly sessions.

Department officials say their current arrangement, an independent juvenile justice monitor with a staff of five that reports to the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families, is sufficient.

The monitoring system was created by an agreement between two agencies and should be formalized in law, state officials said. Critics argue that the monitors are not independent enough.

Ralph Thomas, who heads the monitoring office, denied that he was hampered in his investigations of beatings and other grievances.

Some legislators remained puzzled that the Juvenile Justice Department would object to an additional layer of oversight.

"I'm listening to your objections, and I just don't get it," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat.

When Stacey Gurian-Sherman of Takoma Park-based Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative & Resources outlined her views of the system's shortcomings, she drew a rebuke from Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. of Baltimore.

"To me, your representation is killing the deal," Burns said in an unusual comment about the tone of the testimony. "You are too affirmative, too demanding."

Gurian-Sherman refused to back down. "I am not here to make friends. I'm here to get results," she said.

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