Legislators, juvenile-justice advocates and parents expressed hope yesterday that a U.S. Justice Department report condemning conditions at two Maryland juvenile facilities would speed a promised plan of reform.
"You can sum it up in one word: It's an emergency," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who crafted legislation approved on the final day of the General Assembly session that would substantially shrink or eliminate large detention centers such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.
"The light needs to be shined on these places," Zirkin said. "The problem will be that the money must be there."
In a 51-page letter released Friday that detailed a climate of violence, improperly medicated youths and scant education, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta wrote that conditions at the two facilities violated the constitutional rights of the youths confined there.
The letter described repeated beatings of youths by staffers, some of whom were hired despite criminal backgrounds, and the use of restraint techniques that sent youths to the hospital.
The letter praised the cooperation of state officials with the inquiry but threatened a lawsuit if the parties fail to reach an agreement by May 28.
The General Assembly's reform effort is modeled after a Missouri program, which lowered recidivism while cutting costs by making institutions smaller. Maryland's effort would shrink large detention centers such as Hickey and Cheltenham, along with all state youth treatment centers, to a maximum of 48 beds.
But under the legislation, the state won't permanently take over operation of Hickey until 2007, and Kenneth C. Montague Jr., secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Services, has nearly two years to finish a master plan. The administration has not committed money toward the changes, which could cost millions.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, who sponsored the legislation, said he would push for hearings this summer on the state's response to the report.
Frosh said he hopes the threat of a lawsuit might bring changes faster.
"You can't say, `OK, judge, we completely agree with you. We'll get around to it in five or six years.' You've got to find the money, and you've got to do it."
But Montague said yesterday that although he is working on reducing the populations at Cheltenham and Hickey, it's not likely that he could radically speed up change. Hickey has about 260 youths, and Cheltenham has fewer than 100. "Unless somebody has some magic out there, I don't know how you get chunks of money large enough to take this problem away in one year or two years," Montague said.
Child advocates said yesterday that the report should prompt Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to announce a date for closing Hickey and Cheltenham.
"I think they need to step on the gas a little," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, who has advocated reform. "You don't need 21 months to reform an institution that is affecting 300 kids."
Montague said he is trying to place some youths in the community but that it's not that simple.
"Some of these kids are kids that have to be locked up," he said. "To say that we can easily find other places for them, I think it's wishful thinking on their part."
Two relatives of children once detained at Cheltenham and Hickey said the Justice Department report describes conditions they have complained about.
Catherine Douglass of Reisterstown, whose grandson has been in both facilities, is glad the report publicized the conditions he described. At Hickey, she said, "there was no safe place. There was no structured activity. Constant, constant fights."
"It still annoys me that they allowed these conditions to exist," she said.
Kimberly Armstrong of Northeast Baltimore, whose son spent five months at Hickey last year, said: "I'm glad the federal government is looking into it, to make them do what they're supposed to do. ... There's a little bit of hope, not much."
Montague described as "historical" many of the problems noted in the federal report, stressing that he has been trying to fix the system since Ehrlich appointed him secretary in January last year. The Justice Department's investigation began in August 2002, during former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.
But change has proved difficult. Just as Montague's department was promoting new security procedures at Hickey in February, a fight involving four teen-agers and a staff member sent two youths to the hospital.
The state temporarily took over Hickey at the beginning of this month after a contract with a private operator expired. A new contractor is expected to be selected by summer.