Ehrlich says he would resurrect boot camps

Juvenile justice must be `a priority for the next governor,' he says

April 23, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he would resurrect boot camps for young criminals if elected governor, signaling that his campaign will focus heavily on a maligned program that imploded under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Ehrlich said he was nearing completion of a policy proposal for the state's juvenile justice system, a much-criticized area that has been a responsibility of Townsend during her time in office.

For some less-violent young offenders, "boot camps are the right solution," Ehrlich said during an appearance at a noon luncheon in Arbutus. "Our proposal will have a boot-camp component."

Such programs have effectively prevented teens from committing additional crimes in other places, Ehrlich said. He said the camps could work if mental-health treatment and follow-up care components were bolstered. "Other states are getting results," he said, mentioning Florida as an example.

Maryland operated three juvenile boot camps in Allegany County from 1996 until 1999, when the facilities were closed after The Sun published articles describing repeated beatings and violence by guards against young criminals.

Townsend, put in charge of juvenile justice issues by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, received poor marks from many for her handling of the crisis.

The lieutenant governor has said that the department is heading in the right direction, concentrating on smaller, community-oriented programs and phasing out large, sometimes dangerous institutions.

But the issue refuses to fade. Last month, Maryland agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of 890 inmates who served time in the three camps. About half the money will pay for education for the former inmates, with the rest going to 60 teens who received a variety of injuries at the hands of guards.

According to the legal complaint, one teen was forced to perform jumping jacks at the edge of a rock-filled ditch. The complaint says a guard then pushed him into the rocks, which sliced his scalp. Another teen had his arm broken by a guard, and was ordered to perform push-ups and chin-ups daily for a week before receiving medical care, according to the complaint.

H. Erle Schafer, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, questioned reviving the boot camps, saying "national research shows they are not effective."

The state has "no plans" to reopen the three camps, Schafer said yesterday.

Ehrlich "is completely on the wrong track, and he is 20 years behind the research," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a program coordinator with Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources in Takoma Park. "Why would we go back to something that didn't work?"

Political observers have debated whether the state's juvenile justice shortcomings will prove a liability for Townsend as she seeks to succeed Glendening as governor. Ehrlich's comments yesterday suggest that the issue will be mentioned often through the fall elections.

Juvenile justice "has to be a priority for the next governor," Ehrlich said, adding that state programs must be "totally taken down and built back up."

Townsend did not return a call seeking comment yesterday.

Ehrlich reiterated his concerns for juvenile justice issues later in the day, during an appearance at a meeting of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. But he did not mention the boot camp idea, a sensitive topic in the city. Many of the camp's detainees were African-American Baltimore youths, whose parents and clergy have decried juvenile justice programs.

Ehrlich is trying to reach out to the state's black community, in part to head off anticipated accusations that he is insensitive to racial issues. He received a lukewarm response from the crowd of 30, where one audience member noted that the national NAACP gave him a flunking grade on its most recent congressional voting scorecard. "The NAACP does not speak for all black people," he responded.

Branch president G.I. Johnson told Ehrlich that many Baltimore residents did not know the congressman, and that he needed to do a better job advancing an agenda for city problems.

Ehrlich agreed, and said more detailed proposals were in the works.

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