Finance panel weakens reform bill on juvenile justice

April 03, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The Senate Finance Committee has gutted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposal to reform the juvenile justice system, likely delaying a key component of the bill for at least a year.

The committee told the full Senate yesterday it stripped language from the bill that would have had the Maryland Department of Education - instead of a private vendor - oversee the curriculum at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

The committee's action followed a decision by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee this month to cut the $7.8 million the governor had earmarked for the changeover.

"There is just is no money for that provision," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the finance committee chairman and a Charles County Democrat.

Ehrlich, who has made reform of the juvenile justice system a top priority, has held that a gradual takeover by the public education system would shift the focus toward rehabilitating delinquent youths instead of punishing them.

The Department of Juvenile Justice contracts private companies to oversee education at the state's nine juvenile justice facilities. The governor had wanted to begin changing that this year, starting with the Hickey School.

But the state's fiscal crunch has disrupted Ehrlich's plans.

This month, the House of Delegates cut by half the governor's budget request for the takeover, although it still approved the plan. The Senate then went further and eliminated the money.

State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had embraced Ehrlich's plan but needed money to implement it.

Without the money, Middleton said, the proposed takeover cannot move forward, because it could mean other education programs would have to be cut to pay for the changes at the Hickey School. But Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican who helped Ehrlich formulate his juvenile-justice plan, hopes the House and Senate will work out a compromise before the session ends Monday.

Amedori said the most likely compromise will be a decision to delay the takeover until next year. But Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the administration is holding out hope the takeover can occur this year.

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