Hickey's closing points to bigger flaws within state system

November 30, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

So there was Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday, standing in what's left of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, proclaiming that those of us who advocated get-tough policies for juvenile offenders in the past might have been, well, wrong.

OK, so "wrong" wasn't the word Ehrlich used. But he did say the policy of getting tough with gun-toting juvenile offenders, while perhaps understandable, might have led us to ignore some kids who could have been saved from the clutches of a criminal lifestyle.

"We, in the process of getting tough," Ehrlich said, "wrote off some `savables.'"

The "savables" are those youngsters who entered the juvenile justice system and, the theory goes, could have become productive citizens with a little more education, mental health services and rehabilitation. So Ehrlich pounded home the theme yesterday that a greater focus on education, mental health services and rehabilitation is just what the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is going to have.

That's why he ordered DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. to have the residential portion of Hickey closed by today. Montague, in a briefing to the governor held on school grounds, announced that the mission had been accomplished. There will be no more juvenile offenders sleeping in the more-than-130 beds used for Hickey's residential program. Only the 72-bed detention facility and a separate sex offender program will remain open, but they will close once new facilities are built.

As Hickey began to shut down, approximately 55 juveniles serving 30-to 60-day sentences were placed in small, private residential programs at other locations. Of the 82 juveniles serving longer sentences, 55 were placed in community detention or attached to home-monitoring devices. The others were either sent home or scattered in various treatment centers or residential programs throughout Maryland and four other states. Three are in detention pending placement.

Ehrlich made the decision to close Hickey last summer, citing the facility's history of mismanagement, neglect, overcrowding, violence and lack of services. Large, campus-like facilities like Hickey, Ehrlich said, no longer work.

"Hickey was a '50s and '60s-era model that did not work in the '70s, '80s and '90s," the governor said. "What we've done for decades has failed, and the numbers prove it."

Deputy Juvenile Services Secretary Stephen T. Moyer, a former Maryland State Police trooper, agreed with the governor.

"It's the right step in the right direction at the right time," Moyer said of the decision to close Hickey. "Large campuses are gone." No child belongs in a facility like Hickey, Moyer said.

Montague said that should be the criterion: Where would we want our kids to be if they got in trouble?

Oh, I hate to be a wet blanket when the mood is so celebratory, but maybe I'm still feeling the effects of Jerrod Hamlett's murder. Anybody remember Hamlett? He's a 23-year-old man who was killed last summer. A boy who was 13 at the time has been charged in his death.

The boy is 14 now. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge recently ruled that the boy should remain in the juvenile system and not be tried as an adult. And, to put it mildly, I'm still steaming about that one.

So maybe that's what was on my mind when the subject of "gee, what kind of juvenile facility would we want our kids in?" came up. With all due respect to the governor, Moyer and Montague, I'd have to answer: It depends on the crime, gentlemen. I draw the line at murder.

Had my son tossed a bottle at a grown man when he was 13 and then returned, after being rightly scolded, to fatally shoot that man and wound another who tried to rescue him (as allegedly happened in the Hamlett case), it wouldn't be a matter of what juvenile facility I'd want him in. I'd take him to either the penitentiary or Jessup, personally lock him away myself and toss the key down an active volcano.

But hey, that's just me.

Perhaps we can avoid all that unpleasantness - and the debate about how best to deal with juvenile offenders - by preventing the offenses before they happen. Several Baltimore teachers have told me that they weren't surprised when kids they knew were shot dead on city streets. As early as elementary school, these kids caused trouble, and they went on to compile lengthy juvenile records. I asked Ehrlich if there are any programs to help young folks headed in the wrong direction.

"That is invariably the case," the governor agreed. "The signs are there early. Dysfunction appears in many forms. One weakness of the system is in identifying these kids."

Montague agreed that such a process of identification, followed by intervention, "is a difficult process to do."

Difficult? Darn near impossible. How can you tell parents - even the dysfunctional ones - that you're going to intervene with their children before they've done anything?

There would be howls about a violation of parental rights. But the dysfunction that leads to juvenile crime often involves a lack of parental responsibility.

Rights and responsibilities used to be opposite sides of the same coin. But in today's America, rights and responsibilities have been on a collision course for some time.

It looks like they'll collide at the intersection where public safety meets the juvenile justice system.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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