Help sought for juvenile detention centers

Youth advocates call on Ehrlich to address crowding, violence

May 24, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

A broad coalition of youth advocates called on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to address crowding, understaffing, frequent violence and other problems at Maryland's juvenile detention centers.

The demand comes as all but one of the state's seven main detention centers held more youths than their rated capacity this past weekend.

As of early Monday, the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center housed 154 youths, 10 over its capacity; the Western Maryland Children's Center in Hagerstown housed 35 youths, 11 over; Noyes Children's Center in Montgomery County housed 69 youths, 12 over; and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School detention facility in Baltimore County held 76, four over.

At a news conference, Cameron E. Miles of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said conditions in the facilities are deplorable and need to be addressed.

"We care about young people, and we want them to be safe," Miles said. "With the right programs and guidance, young people can turn their lives around."

Stacey Gurian-Sherman of the advocacy group JJ FAIR, a coalition member, said conditions in detention facilities statewide are worse now than when a scandal erupted during the Glendening administration over harsh treatment of youths at boot camps in Western Maryland.

"We thought we had hit rock-bottom, but we manage to keep going lower and lower," she said. "We have more facilities in crisis than ever before."

A spokesman for Ehrlich declined to comment, saying he would leave it to the juvenile services agency to offer a response.

Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for juvenile services, said that conditions aren't as dire as portrayed. He said that Ehrlich "has made very significant steps in the right direction."

As examples, he noted that the state education department was brought in to take over educational programs at three detention centers and that long-term residential programs at Hickey were closing.

Hopkins said the agency is aware of and making efforts to address the problems of overcrowding and insufficient staffing.

"Things don't happen in a vacuum," Hopkins said. "It takes time to repair the plethora of problems that existed when Governor Ehrlich took over."

But Gurian-Sherman said the Ehrlich administration has had nearly four years to address problems with a juvenile services system he promised to fix.

Miles and other advocates said the state's independent juvenile justice monitors have noted the same problems repeatedly in their inspection reports. They said Ehrlich should order the agency to treat recommendations by the monitors as mandates, instead of suggestions they can ignore if they want.

The news conference was called to demonstrate support for Katherine A. Perez, whom the Ehrlich administration appointed this year to head the independent juvenile justice monitoring office. But she came under fire from Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague after issuing stinging reports this month about conditions inside the juvenile facilities.

Perez's predecessor as independent monitor, Ralph Thomas, said at the news conference that he, too, had been attacked for writing reports that the juvenile services agency didn't like.

Thomas, who quit to take another job in July, said he was told he was biased and had a vendetta against the department even though his reports accurately described what he found.

"It's like reliving a bad nightmare," Thomas said of reading inspection reports issued by Perez. He said little has changed over the past five years.

Kimberly Armstrong of Baltimore described at the news conference how her teenage son was held at Hickey for seven months, spending most of his time playing cards and getting little help.

She said he was fatally shot on the streets nine months after he came home.

"How much more of this are we going to take?" asked Armstrong, who now mentors troubled teenage girls. "When are we going to come together and help our children?"

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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