Ehrlich and juvenile justice: New principles, mixed progress

Principles of juvenile justice embraced

progress mixed

October 21, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. ran for the state's top job four years ago, he promised broad criminal justice reforms, including fixing Maryland's long-troubled juvenile justice system.

Stepping away from the traditional image of Republican candidates who push law-and-order agendas and harsh prison terms, Ehrlich spoke of attacking the motivation behind much of Maryland crime - treatment for drug addiction, particularly for nonviolent offenders.

"The whole example of addiction, offense, incarceration, continued addiction and re-offense is something we have to break," the governor said during a recent debate, summarizing his approach to criminal justice.

But as Ehrlich's first term in office draws to a close, some of those who welcomed the call for changes say that his performance has been mixed, at best, and that the bold promises he made have gone largely unfulfilled.

He has closed most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and reduced the Cheltenham Youth Center - two of the state's most troubled juvenile justice facilities - while pushing expanded rehabilitation and drug treatment for both youths and adults.

Yet the state's adult prisons and juvenile justice system clearly have created their share of political headaches for Ehrlich.

This year, two correctional officers were killed by inmates while on duty - the first since 1984. And inmate violence over the past three years has led to severe injury or, in some cases, death for dozens of prisoners in the state's prisons and jails.

The violence escalated during an exodus of veteran wardens and staff, who either quit or were forced out of their jobs. Correctional officers complained repeatedly that prisons were understaffed and unsafe.

"They've done a terrible job," said Ron Bailey, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, the bargaining agent for corrections workers. The union endorsed Ehrlich's opponent for next month's election.

The problems in the prison system led to the ouster of state prisons chief Frank C. Sizer Jr. in August, but Ehrlich balked at calls to replace Sizer's boss, Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and her top deputy, Mary Livers.

Meanwhile, state monitors and federal authorities issued damning reports about conditions inside juvenile detention facilities, pointing to out-of-control violence, inadequate staffing, a lack of programs and other problems.

Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the administration's record on juvenile justice reform has been disappointing.

Although Ehrlich issued an impressive white paper four years ago that "embraced the principles of a model juvenile justice system," Heisner said, little progress has been made to build such a system.

"We're about the same place where we were four years ago," Heisner said. "Many more things have not changed than have changed. ... They came in with a very strong condemnation of the previous administration's practices, and went on and continued most of them."

Others, though, say Ehrlich deserves credit for speaking out about the need to rehabilitate juvenile and adult offenders - most of whom will eventually return to their communities - rather than just adopting a lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach.

Ehrlich has demonstrated compassion by regularly reviewing inmate requests for executive clemency and granting them when the facts warrant, said Tandra Ridgley, co-founder of the Grassroots Steering Foundation, an advocacy group based in Harford County.

"To date, several hundred cases have been reviewed and 189 clemency requests have been granted," Ridgley said. "This is historic."

She also said that Ehrlich favors treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

Richard B. Rosenblatt, assistant secretary in charge of treatment services for the Department of Public Safety, said it makes sense from a public safety standpoint to focus on rehabilitation programs.

Drug treatment, educational programs, mental health counseling and job skills training keep inmates constructively engaged, reduce violence inside prisons and improve the odds they won't re-offend when they return to society, he said.

"We want them to stop being a plague to society," Rosenblatt said. "It's a selfish motivation in that we don't want the dog to keep biting us. We're tired of getting bit."

But the centerpiece of the administration's efforts - a program called Project Restart - was never fully launched as intended, Rosenblatt said. Instead, legislators agreed to fund it at only two pilot sites.

"We were thwarted right out of the gate, quite frankly," he said.

The administration's view that inmate idleness is a major contributor to prison violence is shared by national correctional experts.

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