Juvenile justice remains broken

Boot camps: Abused ex-inmates may receive money, but the state agency still needs major overhaul.

April 02, 2002

THE MORE than $4 million that the state has agreed to distribute to 890 ex-inmates of its closed boot camps for juveniles underscores just how wrong things can go when politicians latch onto a questionable idea and entrust its execution to an incompetent bureaucracy.

The money is largely earmarked for education aid for those physically abused in the camps, according to the proposed settlement of a class action suit announced last week. The cash may do some good. (Just think if education had been the state's main focus in the first place.)

But the core of the problem -- the failings of the state Department of Juvenile Justice -- remains.

The three Western Maryland boot camps were a particular pride of Lt. Gov. (and certain gubernatorial candidate) Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. That is, until late 1999, when a Sun series graphically described violence by guards in one of the camps on the 14 boys in "Charlie Squad," teen-agers sent there for rehabilitation.

Within days of the reports, all inmates were released from the camps, the programs were shut down, and top officials in the juvenile justice agency were sacked.

Ms. Towsend, facing a wave of criticism for one of the first times, decried the abuses and said the buck stopped with her. Then she claimed she had been misled by underlings, and immediately began ducking the whole disaster.

In this year's race for governor, Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. almost certainly won't give her a free pass on the camps. But he shouldn't let the questions end there.

Perhaps worse was what happened afterward: The youths graduated to the tough streets of their old neighborhoods with state vows of close supervision and support -- vows immediately broken by the juvenile justice agency.

A little more than two years after the camps were closed, every member of "Charlie Squad" has been arrested, with five of 14 reportedly in jail right now. Reports of more violence on youths at other state facilities have emerged, and the juvenile justice agency -- in contact with more than 50,000 Maryland children a year -- remains in need of a major overhaul.

In that sense, the state violence -- literal and otherwise -- that was cruelly set upon the children of "Charlie Squad" continues today.

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