Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is set to announce today his plans for the Office of the Independent Monitor for juvenile justice, which has issued a series of scathing reports detailing violence and abuse in Maryland's youth lockups.
The office is politically sensitive because it issues independent reports about conditions in juvenile justice centers that advocates say are essential for reform, but it has also provided evidence suggesting that Ehrlich's campaign promises to clean up the state's juvenile justice system remain unfulfilled.
Ralph Thomas, the current monitor, said he has not been involved in discussions about the fate of the office. Thomas is well-regarded by many advocates, who say they worry that he will be replaced or see his independence curtailed.
`We're very worried'
"This thing runs on the strength of Ralph's integrity and background and commitment," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We're very worried that the pressure is enormous to have that office get lost in the shuffle or squelch its independence in some way."
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver wouldn't say whether the administration will keep Thomas.
"All leadership and restructuring questions will be answered tomorrow," she said.
In May, Ehrlich vetoed a bill that would have moved the office under the jurisdiction of the attorney general. In his veto message, Ehrlich said the move would reduce the office's independence because the attorney general would be responsible for investigating the performance of the Department of Juvenile Services and defending that department against any resulting accusations of impropriety.
But advocates for the bill said it would have served only to make the office more independent of political influence. The monitor is a part of the Office of Children, Youth and Families, which, like the Department of Juvenile Services, is led by a gubernatorial appointee.
OCYF was abolished by the legislature this year. Today's announcement will outline a new Governor's Office of Children and Children's Cabinet, which Ehrlich has promised will take over OCYF's functions.
Ehrlich heavily criticized his opponent in 2002, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, for Maryland's performance on juvenile justice issues, which she led in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.
But in the past year, Thomas has issued reports detailing chronic understaffing at the new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center and instances of violence between youths and guards.
"It's not a secret that the administration is not anxious to be criticized," said Jim McComb, head of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. "The legislature says, `We want to initiate another level of oversight,' and the governor says no. That's a pretty clear message."
Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill transferring the monitor to the attorney general's office, praised Thomas, and said that if Ehrlich hinders the monitor's independence he will press for a veto override.
The bill passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the legislature.