Md. challenges federal report

Administration disputes U.S. finding that juvenile-offender center is unsafe

November 22, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

The Ehrlich administration has sent a sharply worded letter and nearly 500 pages of supporting documents to the U.S. Justice Department, challenging a finding that the state has run a Baltimore center for juvenile offenders in an unsafe and unconstitutional manner.

A Justice Department report issued in August said youths held at the 144-bed center on North Gay Street "suffer significant harm and risk of harm" because there isn't enough staff on hand and treatment plans are inadequate.

The report noted youth-on-youth assault rates 47 percent higher than the national average for such facilities.

But state officials say the report was written nearly a year after federal officials inspected the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center in September and October 2005 and that the concerns they raised have been addressed.

"We strongly disagree with the Justice Department's findings," said Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. "We believe their conclusions are wrong."

The highly critical Justice Department report was regarded as an embarrassment for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who had made juvenile justice reform a key issue when he campaigned for the office four years ago. The report lays the foundation for a possible lawsuit that could lead to a court order forcing the state to change the way it runs the juvenile center.

In a 16-page, footnoted letter dated Nov. 6, Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. called on federal officials to drop the matter. The letter was released yesterday after The Sun requested a copy.

"DJS believes that, as of October, 2006, children confined to the [Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center] do not suffer the harm or significant risk of harm described in your letter and that there are certainly no risks [of] violating the constitutional or federal statutory rights of these youths," Montague wrote.

While youth-on-youth assaults at the center are higher than the national average, Montague wrote, the number has been reduced sharply since federal officials visited more than a year ago.

Many of the problems highlighted in the Justice Department report were resolved well before it was issued in August, Montague said.

For example, he said, the center "has replaced its lightweight plastic chairs with large boxy chairs which are more difficult to lift and too cumbersome to be effectively used as a weapon." And, he said, toothbrushes have been replaced with a "shank-proof" variety that can't be fashioned into weapons.

In addition, Montague wrote, the Maryland State Department of Education was brought into the center in January to take over its education programs, including special education services.

The Justice Department "nonetheless baldly asserts that that the Justice Center `fails to provide adequate special education services.' ... The DOJ is wrong," Montague wrote.

He said further that, on the subject of educational programs, the Justice Department's report "contains basic factual mistakes and reaches conclusions that are simply unfounded."

Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the federal agency would have no comment on the details of the state's response.

"We stand by our letter, and we remain willing to work with the state to reach a resolution," Magnuson said.

Although Montague wrote in his letter that staffing and other issues at the center have mostly been resolved, reports by the state's independent juvenile justice monitor tell a different story.

As recently as Aug. 31, then-monitor Katherine A. Perez wrote Montague about "the ongoing issue of staffing shortages and the threat to life, health and safety this presents to children" housed at the Baltimore juvenile justice center.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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