Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared yesterday that his administration's efforts to reform Maryland's juvenile services system are going smoothly and said critics who suggest otherwise are either misinformed or are taking shots for political reasons.
He and other top officials said the state did the right thing in dismantling large residential programs for juvenile offenders, such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. Government regulators and others have long criticized both places for their poor conditions and ineffective rehabilitation programs.
"What we've done for decades has failed, and the numbers prove it," Ehrlich said. He said it would be foolish to try to fix a "broken, dysfunctional system" that was based on an old model of large institutions that didn't work.
Ehrlich held a news conference at Hickey to announce that the state had met its goal, announced June 30, to close 144 beds at the facility by today. A juvenile jail and a program for sex offenders will remain at the site indefinitely until new facilities can be built elsewhere.
Juvenile judges, the Maryland public defender's office, key legislators and advocates for children have criticized Ehrlich's decision to close Hickey before alternative programs were developed in Maryland to handle those youths. More than 150 juvenile offenders who are supposed to be in rehabilitative programs are being held in jails while state officials try to find places to put them.
"We all have believed for a long time that Hickey needs to be closed -- the question is, where do you place these juvenile offenders?" said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "The governor's answer is, unfortunately, to send them home. That's a public safety problem."
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said the Hickey closing poses public safety risks because youths who have committed serious crimes that may warrant secure confinement are now being sent home or to poorly supervised group homes or similar facilities.
"I'm not satisfied that they have a plan yet for what to do with youths who should be ... at an institution like Hickey," Smith said.
The county executive, a Democrat, said his criticisms have nothing to do with politics. "I have the largest number of group homes of any community in the state," Smith said. "This isn't political."
But Ehrlich, at the Hickey news conference, said the real threat to public safety has been "the dysfunctionality of places like this."
He said change is hard for some people to accept. "There will be naysayers, but we're not going to let naysayers or people who want to use this for political purposes take us off track," Ehrlich said.
Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said closing Hickey was "the right thing to do" and was accomplished with little disruption.
Other agency officials said that the number of youths who are in jails awaiting placement is about the same as it has been in past years. They said 10 youths have been sent to out-of-state treatment programs in the aftermath of the Hickey closing.
Montague said other youths have been moved to smaller private residential programs or are receiving services while living at home.
He said his department is preparing to seek proposals from private vendors to operate a residential treatment program in Maryland that can serve some of the hardest-to-place youths.