Leading from the rear

March 23, 2004

WHY IS the General Assembly trying to change our juvenile justice system? Because no one else is leading the charge.

With a phalanx of bills, delegates and senators are trying to reorganize the state's Department of Juvenile Services into a regional system of specific, small facilities plus continued care services for after a child returns home. The bills require regular reports of goals, plans and achievements.

But isn't that exactly what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised to do in the reform plan he offered when he was campaigning? And isn't that what the past administration spelled out in its own three-year plan? No wonder legislators feel impelled to do something. It may be the only way to kick-start - and keep the pressure on - the department to make much-needed deep changes.

It cannot be that no one at DJS knows what to do. Department Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. understands the system, having tracked its problems and successes during his 16 years as a delegate. So do his deputies and chiefs, some of whom have worked in the department for decades. There also is wide agreement on the fixes, listed in Mr. Ehrlich's campaign plan and even in Glendening-era reports, and reinforced by officials' and legislators' recent visits to other, more successful states.

DJS officials say that before they do any overhaul, though, they need to do more research - starting with an accounting of department facilities that they say will take up to 18 months. But had they begun as promised in early 2003, they'd now be within three months of completing the review. Instead, waiting for a grant or for money in the supplemental budget, reviewers won't begin until summer. So any new plans couldn't be ready until 2006. Cue the legislators.

Yet state laws still won't guarantee results. DJS has not filed its state-mandated three-year plan this year; it doesn't have an approved 10-year master plan, also required by statute; and while it has made strides in downsizing the Cheltenham Youth Facility, it has not kept up with the statutory time goals. What's to say it would meet reporting - or action - goals any better in the future?

The Ehrlich administration and the department could have avoided this mess by presenting a start-up plan and acting on it, fast. Instead, DJS staffers are scrambling to work with bill-drafters in both houses on their plans, including making radical revisions in some big bills between hearings. While that sounds like happy bipartisanship, the fact is that if it were truly cooperative, everyone would have cleaned up the bills before session, not in red-eye meetings midstream. This is reconstruction they're talking about, not cosmetics. Hearings on some of the bills are today and Thursday.

Sure, change is slow, as Mr. Montague likes to say. But if he could show some real steps being made, perhaps he wouldn't have so many legislators biting at his heels. And he'd have more time free to make the changes his wards so desperately need.

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