Juvenile justice chief briefs House committee

Education program, drug court among plans

January 29, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

After less than two weeks on the job, the state's new secretary for the Department of Juvenile Justice -- which is a priority for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- said yesterday the agency is in better shape than he expected.

But Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. stopped short of assessing the overall health of the department, saying he had not had time to read the stack of reports on his new desk.

"What we have is a framework for easy movement into the governor's program," Montague told the House Judiciary Committee. "What I don't know yet is whether it is actually making a difference on the street."

The department, embattled in recent years, is one of two for which Ehrlich has proposed giving significantly more money for new programs in the coming fiscal year. (The other is the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.) He has budgeted $7.5 million to pay for an education program for youth offenders, which will begin at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

Other initiatives of the administration include a statewide drug court for juveniles based on the system in place for adult offenders; a truancy program designed to prevent children from entering the juvenile justice system; and improved mental health services.

In response to statistics showing that African-American youthful offenders are more likely to end up in the legal system, Montague said he will appoint an assistant secretary for minority justice who will be charged with "identifying and reducing unfair practices."

The department plans to continue the previous administration's trend of closing large juvenile institutions such as the Victor Cullen Academy and the Cheltenham School, and replace them with smaller, community-based facilities.

And to underscore the push toward services for drug treatment, mental health and education, Ehrlich wants to change the agency's name to the Department of Juvenile Services. During the gubernatorial campaign, Ehrlich focused on problems at the agency and pledged to make improvements.

While some of these ideas were already under way during the previous administration, the difference this year, juvenile justice advocates said yesterday, is that Ehrlich appears to be genuinely interested in the issue.

"Obviously it wasn't just campaign rhetoric," said James P. McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

While he is still worried about poor conditions at the Hickey school, McComb was heartened by what he heard yesterday. "I think there's reason to be optimistic."

Heather Ford, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said she, too, was encouraged. "The vision of the department is in line with what we've been advocating. It's going to take some real courage and perseverance ... but we may actually see something happen this time."

The agency hasn't had this level of attention paid to it by a governor "for a good decade," she added. Ehrlich "seems to be putting his money where his mouth is."

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