Ehrlich's plan for juveniles is unveiled

Candidate would stress drug, mental treatment

Calls for `child-first' culture

Townsend says opponent is hijacking her initiatives

Election 2002

October 10, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Claiming that Maryland's current system is a danger to youths and the public, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed a sweeping reorganization of the Department of Juvenile Justice yesterday by creating "a child-first culture."

The GOP nominee for governor said he would replace the current system with one that puts more emphasis on drug and mental health treatment and less on incarceration.

"Our plan is about kids, not creating new criminals," Ehrlich said as he unveiled his 40-page proposal in Annapolis.

With less than a month until the election, Ehrlich also launched a forceful attack on Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's stewardship of the agency.

Ehrlich has said the Department of Juvenile Justice, which Townsend oversees, has been "plagued" with problems. His campaign released a 26-page booklet that Ehrlich calls a "blistering indictment" of the agency and how Townsend has managed it.

"During the last eight years, our juvenile justice regime has suffered failure after failure," Ehrlich said yesterday. "Maryland has become a more dangerous place and tragedies have become commonplace, and this tragedy lies on the doorstep of the [Gov. Parris N.] Glendening-Townsend administration."

The Townsend campaign, which notes that juvenile crime has dropped 27 percent since 1995, responded by accusing Ehrlich of hijacking initiatives that the lieutenant governor is implementing to improve the system.

"What he is trying to do is piggyback on a lot of innovative thinking and hard work on the part of the Department of Juvenile Justice under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Townsend," said Kate Phillips, a Townsend spokeswoman.

Ehrlich said his proposal for the revamped department would cost about $200 million a year, compared with the $180 million a year earmarked for the current system. The bulk of the increase would be paid for by federal grants, Ehrlich said.

Youth advocates immediately praised Ehrlich for coming up with a proposal, but had mixed reviews on whether it will work.

"There are certainly plenty of elements in the Ehrlich plan that match the coalition's agenda and the best practices in the country," said Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute and a member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

But Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said she wants to hear more from the Ehrlich campaign.

"This is a pretty comprehensive attempt to address issues that are not addressed that often, but it is not very specific regarding how you would provide alternatives to incarcerating nonviolent offenders," Ford said.

A key aspect of Ehrlich's proposal is that the Maryland Department of Education would take over the education mission at all nine of the state schools for delinquent youths.

Currently, the Department of Juvenile Justice operates education at those schools. Ehrlich said the changes would show that the focus is shifting to educating and rehabilitating delinquent youths instead of punishing them.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday that she would welcome the change because the Department of Education directs education at adult prisons.

"We would do a better job," Grasmick said. "We support it and think it would work as long as you have the money."

Ehrlich's plan also would change the name of the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Department of Juvenile Services. The renamed department would implement a "child-first culture," also called by child welfare professionals a "wraparound approach," that would try all viable alternatives before a child is incarcerated in a detention facility.

To achieve this, Ehrlich plans to institute drug treatment and rehabilitation courts that would manage cases involving drug offenders. The offenders would receive supervised drug treatment. Ehrlich also pledged that mental health treatment would be "a priority" for youths who enter the system.

A new position of assistant secretary for minority justice services would be created at the renamed department. The secretary would be responsible for identifying and eliminating racial bias in how the system targets, treats and incarcerates delinquent youths.

But the proposal -- which Ehrlich says is the result of "hundreds of hours of meetings" -- would include increasing detention time for teen-agers who violate probation or commit more serious crimes.

"Detention does not need to be lengthy, but it must deliver a message of authority to the youth in violation," the proposal states.

Schiraldi said that is one part of the Ehrlich plan that he disagrees with.

"Does this mean if a kid comes home 15 minutes after curfew he gets locked up?" Schiraldi asked.

The congressman maintains that there must be some consequence for youths who violate the law, but at the same time he said he is rethinking the practice of sending some teen-agers convicted of nonviolent crimes to adult prisons.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.