Moving of juvenile offenders criticized

Plan to send youths out of Md. draws fire

October 01, 2005|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

The Ehrlich administration's plan to send some Maryland juvenile offenders to programs as far away as Texas, Minnesota and Iowa drew sharp criticism yesterday from Baltimore's top juvenile judge, the Maryland Public Defender's Office and key state legislators.

"I'm absolutely appalled by it," Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch said of the plan released this week.

He said judges need to be familiar with the places where juveniles are being sent so they know if they are appropriate for disadvantaged, urban youths. "I think that, generally, the judiciary is not too happy with the situation," he said.

Mary K. Siegfried of the Maryland Public Defender's Office, which represents many young offenders in court, said youths need to remain close to home so their lawyers can check up on their clients.

"A lot of times, we are all they have," she said. "We may be their only visitors, their only phone calls. To take them further away just makes their plight that much worse. ... We don't know how good these programs are. "

The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services released on Wednesday a list of nine juvenile facilities in other states where the agency said it will send some of its most difficult young offenders when the 144-bed secure program at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School is closed next month.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced June 30 that he had decided to close the prison-like facility, which advocates, lawmakers and government inspectors have long criticized as unsafe and ineffective. The U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report last year saying conditions at Hickey violated the civil rights of its residents.

Juvenile Services officials said some juveniles will instead be placed in other programs in Maryland, and some will be allowed to live at home with supervision and services.

But they said some of the toughest young offenders will have to be sent out of state temporarily until Maryland can find private providers interested in developing secure programs here.

Lawanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the juvenile services department, said yesterday that the out-of-state placements are intended as a temporary solution until a new, secure placement facility can be established in Maryland.

"The department has made it clear that our plan to send youths out of state is short term and that every effort will be made to maintain ties with family for youths, both out of state and locally," she said.

The state is looking into providing transportation so youths and their families can visit, she said.

Lawmakers and others who had pushed for closing Hickey said that they don't believe enough planning went into the decision, and that they are especially troubled by the plan to send youths to far-off states.

"How are you supposed to have family involvement in treatment programs if you have the kid sitting out in Iowa?" Del. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has sponsored several pieces of juvenile services reform legislation, said yesterday.

Zirkin said he favors an approach such as one used in Missouri, where troubled youths receive intensive services in small, regional facilities that are run by the state. He said Maryland is "doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done to get these kids back on track."

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. has said his agency is moving toward using more community-based services wherever possible, with youths receiving treatment and close monitoring while remaining in their homes.

Only the most difficult juvenile offenders will be sent out of state, he said.

Judge Welch said he supports the idea of providing more intensive services to youths in their homes. But he said there will always be youths who need to be locked away for a time. Maryland is losing the ability to do that with the closing of Hickey, he said.

"I wish they had created the capacity first before they closed it," Welch said. "I think they closed it precipitously, without there being an appropriate plan to replace it. I have no information about their future plans."

Other juvenile judges from Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties voiced similar concerns at a meeting with legislators in Annapolis on Wednesday. Closing Hickey without a clear plan to replace it is jeopardizing the welfare of youths and putting public safety at risk, the judges told lawmakers.

"It's a very troubling criticism," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat who serves on a legislative subcommittee that deals with juvenile justice issues.

The complaints by the judges carry extra weight, Quinter said, because they are "neutral participants in the juvenile justice process" and are interested only in seeing that the system functions properly.

"Over the long term, Maryland needs to have its own secure facility for handling the worst of the worst juvenile criminals, and the Ehrlich administration just doesn't have a plan for that," Quinter said. "It's good to have the option to close Hickey, but when that decision is made, you have to have a plan for how you're going to do it."

Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel Democrat, said she has "real reservations" about sending youths to other states based on the concerns she has heard from judges. "If we're really wanting to help the child, it's not helping to move him out of state," she said.

Cadden, who chaired the Wednesday meeting, said lawmakers have not been given adequate details about how juvenile services officials intend to handle the transition.

"This is a big issue," she said. "People are worried about public safety."greg.garland@baltsun.com

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