GOP leader says youths' escape was covered up

State failed to notify media when 3 fled juvenile facility

August 14, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun Reporter

Republicans in the Maryland House of Delegates accused Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration yesterday of trying to cover up the escapes of three teenagers Sunday from the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

The Department of Juvenile Services used a telephone notification system to alert some members of the public but did not issue a news release or otherwise attempt to spread word of the escapes until an inquiry from a Sun reporter Tuesday.

"The administration hoped that their name wouldn't be attached to yet another escape under their watch," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland. "I think they were trying to cover it up at the expense of the public."

O'Malley officials referred questions to Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore, who denied any attempt to hide information and said his department was hindered by laws shielding the identities of incarcerated juveniles.

DeVore said his administration has established a "community alert system" that notifies people who have previously signed up for the alerts whenever an escape occurs in their area. As of yesterday, about 1,100 people statewide had signed up for the alerts, said DJS spokeswoman Tammy Brown. She could not immediately say how many people were notified of the Cheltenham escape.

Under a law sponsored by the O'Malley administration that goes into effect in October, DJS will be able to release identifying information about escaped youths to the state police, who may then choose to inform the public, DeVore said. He said he will still allow police to determine whether information about escapes should be made public.

That notification policy is different from the one employed by Maryland's adult prison system. If an inmate escapes an adult correctional facility, the news media are "immediately" notified "so the public is aware that there is a potential public safety threat," said Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli.

O'Donnell said the juvenile system should adopt a similar policy. "Look, these are violent offenders," he said. "If my daughter and two grandchildren are traveling in that area ... I want them to hear a radio report and be on the lookout. The public has a right to know."

As of yesterday evening, two of the escaped teenagers - Tyrone Johnson, 18, of Baltimore and Demarco Smith, 18, of Washington - were still at large. The third teen, a 17-year-old, was arrested Monday.

The 18-year-olds were at Cheltenham on juvenile charges of drug dealing and failure to appear in court in a theft and burglary case. They escaped Sunday by using needle-nosed pliers to breach a metal fence near a school on the property.

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