Plan to aid youth facility

In wake of scathing report, Ehrlich moves to ease staff shortage at juvenile center

`This is our responsibility'

Improved hiring process, inmate transfer suggested

September 16, 2004|By David Nitkin and Greg Garland | David Nitkin and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced a plan yesterday to ease dangerous staffing shortages at the state's new juvenile justice center in Baltimore by streamlining the hiring process and transferring some incarcerated youths to other locations.

The improvement plan for the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center comes two days after independent monitors issued a blistering report describing how defense lawyers and clergy are afraid to enter the $45 million facility, which has been open less than a year.

The center, which was staffed for 48 youngsters, housed 106 when the monitors visited last month, the report said. While state Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said in a statement that "the Ehrlich-Steele team came forth immediately" to address the problems, the administration's action plan comes three months after the facility's first director resigned in protest over staffing shortages.

Breaking her silence about her resignation, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth said in an interview Friday with The Sun that the center was chronically understaffed when she left in June.

At times there were no workers assigned to some 12-bed units, which should have two staffers for appropriate supervision, she said.

Her resignation, she said, was designed to "draw attention to the fact that this [lack of staff] could be extremely dangerous."

Ehrlich said yesterday that his administration accepted the challenge of fixing the jail. "This is our responsibility, and we are not into excuse making," he said.

However, the governor also suggested that problems at the center arise not from insufficient personnel, but from city police sending too many youngsters there.

"That place was never meant to be the city jail," the governor said. "That's just a fact."

Last night, state officials released an "emergency plan of action" for the center.

It was developed in conjunction with six state agencies, including juvenile services, the state police, the budget and management office and the Governor's Office of Children, Youth and Families. Components include:

Transferring juvenile services workers to Baltimore from other facilities and hiring temporary contractual employees with grant money.

Creating a human resources "action team" to speed interviews and hiring for permanent staff.

Transferring youths who have been sentenced but are awaiting placements elsewhere. The monitors' report said such youths, rather than those awaiting trial, were a particular source of problems.

Assigning state police and "senior administration officials" to staff the jail.

Buying more radios and surveillance cameras and issuing "remote alarms" to employees inside the center.

Reaction to the proposals was lukewarm, with some advocates saying the plan doesn't go far enough.

"The system needs a sweeping overhaul. ... Walkie-talkies or alarms won't fix all the fundamental problems," said Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

"This last monitor's report has caused some immediate action, but it is only a start on a long list of urgent recommendations," she said. "It's like putting out a fire in a tinderbox, but you have to deal with the tinderbox itself and change the structural issues across the system."

The Baltimore center, on North Gay Street at the Fallsway, was constructed to relieve problems at other larger, older and dilapidated youth jails in Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

Even though Ehrlich asserts that the facility is not "the city jail," under state law it serves that function: housing youngsters who are awaiting court hearings.

But juvenile services officials also house youths there who have been to court and are awaiting placement elsewhere.

The monitors said those youngsters cause many of the disturbances at the downtown facility.

With the nagging problem of poor juvenile justice conditions in Maryland as a backdrop, Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley swapped accusations yesterday over sharing the blame. The two leaders are potential rivals for governor in 2006.

Ehrlich said that Baltimore police sweeps were corralling dozens of youngsters at a time for "minor infractions," and the arrests were swamping the state facility. "Somebody gave the order" for the sweeps, Ehrlich said. "We just know it's happening."

O'Malley responded: "I make no apologies for reducing crime. This is the first I've heard that the governor objects to our enforcing laws in order to protect the lives of young people."

The mayor said he was frustrated that state officials have not made better use of city programs that he said were effective in treating young offenders. He also called for an end to finger-pointing over the contentious issue.

However, he also accused Ehrlich of not making juvenile services a priority, despite his campaign promises in 2002.

"The $8 million in cuts that this budget imposed on juvenile justice was a real hard blow for juvenile justice to take," O'Malley said. "So far this has not been a very important issue for them, having dispensed with it during the election when there was daily criticism of the lieutenant governor [Kathleen Kennedy Townsend] for juvenile justice."

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

Center at a glance

The $45 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center opened in October.

The state-run center has beds for up to 144 delinquent boys awaiting court hearings.

Detainees are charged with offenses including theft, drug dealing and assault.

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