Townsend questions motive behind probe of juvenile facilities

Federal inquiry prompted by GOP lawmakers' letter, Justice spokeswoman says

September 07, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A newly launched federal investigation of the Department of Juvenile Justice -- the second U.S. probe this year of an agency Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend oversees -- raises an "interesting question" of whether it is driven by politics, she said yesterday.

Officials of the state agency said they received a letter from the Justice Department this week announcing its intention to look into conditions of Maryland's juvenile facilities under a law protecting the civil rights of people in detention.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the investigation into conditions at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and Charles H. Hickey Jr. School was prompted, at least in part, by a letter sent by Republican legislators in March.

During a news conference yesterday, Townsend, the likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate, did not accuse the Justice Department of conducting a political probe. However, she suggested that the timing of the investigation -- coming two months before an election in which she is expected to face Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- was a subject worth pursuing.

"I really hope they're not politically motivated," Townsend said. "That would be wrong. That would be a misuse of their resources."

The civil investigation comes on the heels of a continuing criminal probe of the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention launched by the U.S. attorney's office in Maryland this year. That probe apparently involves suspicions of misuse of federal funds for political purposes.

Reports of a flurry of subpoenas in that probe have been an unwelcome distraction for Townsend at a time when the lieutenant governor is trying to arrest an erosion of her once-solid lead in the polls.

The new investigation of the Juvenile Justice Department, first reported in the Washington Post yesterday, could be another setback. At her Harlem Park news conference yesterday -- called to announce a city-state initiative to closely monitor youthful offenders -- questions about the probe outnumbered those about the program.

Townsend's response to the new investigation was more restrained than her reaction to the earlier probe, which she labeled "political garbage."

She welcomes the investigation, she said, contending it would find that "we've made a lot of progress" in fixing the troubled system.

Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson was more openly suspicious that Republican Justice Department officials might be trying to influence the election. He called the timing of the investigation "troubling," citing the letter GOP legislators wrote to Attorney General John Ashcroft in March calling for such a probe.

"I certainly hope they're not using these kids as a basis or platform on which to seek elective office," he said.

In his letter on behalf of the Republican caucus, Del. Charles R. Boutin charged that the juvenile justice system "has not improved" since a 1999 boot camp scandal. That year, The Sun detailed how juvenile offenders were routinely pummeled by their caretakers and abused in other ways.

The Harford County legislator, citing subsequent reports in The Sun, said more recent incidents showed "sufficient evidence of a deprivation of rights under color of law" to deserve an investigation.

Boutin said yesterday that he is pleased by the department's decision and rejected any suggestion that he was seeking to influence the governor's race. He said he acted only after department officials denied his request for access to detainees' medical records.

"I did it more as an attorney and knowing things I know from some clients I have had," he said. "I have felt for a long time, to quote Shakespeare, that there is something rotten in Denmark here."

Robinson said he is confident his department, which he took over in the wake of the boot camp fiasco, would withstand scrutiny.

"We certainly have made a lot of reforms," he said. Robinson pointed to the recent closing of the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick, a 40 percent smaller population at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County and the creation of new levels of oversight at detention facilities.

Casey Stavropoulos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said federal lawyers had reviewed the letter from the GOP lawmakers before launching their investigation. She said she did not know if other complaints had also prompted the decision.

If the department finds a violation, it could bring a lawsuit against the state. Such suits in the past have typically led to a settlement and a consent decree requiring a state to make certain reforms.

According to a Justice Department Web site, the last complaint filed against a state juvenile justice agency came under the Clinton administration in 2000. That complaint, against Louisiana, was settled the same year.

Stavropoulous said the Ashcroft Justice Department has yet to file a complaint about a state's juvenile justice facilities. She added, however, that the department has active investigations in Nevada, Arizona, Michigan and Mississippi.

Advocates of juvenile justice reform said the state agency had made progress in reforming the system during the past two years.

James P. McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association Resources for Family and Youth, said it is hard not to suspect that the investigation was influenced by politics.

"The fact is, there were matters of grievous concern two years ago and not a bit of attention was paid," McComb said.

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