Hearings Planned On Youth Services

City Shooting, Cullen Center Woes Spur Calls For Reform

July 22, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Maryland lawmakers said Tuesday that they plan fall hearings on the state Department of Juvenile Services in response to recent reports of problems at its highest-security treatment facility and concerns that the system is not equipped to deal with violent young offenders.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he had been considering such a hearing for months, but "the revelations recently make it timely and urgent." A date had not been set.

The chairman of the counterpart committee in the House of Delegates also is laying the groundwork for a review. Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat, said the topic of juvenile reform "absolutely must be addressed this coming [legislative] session," which begins in January.

This fall, he said, the House Judiciary Committee will join the Senate hearing or visit juvenile facilities or both. "A lot of issues have arisen lately, and we need to know more about what's going on," Vallario said.

A spokeswoman, Tammy Brown, said Juvenile Services has a good relationship with the General Assembly and would participate in any hearings. Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, appointed Donald W. DeVore, an experienced juvenile justice administrator, as department secretary in February 2007.

"I think we've shown the legislators that the department has made progress and done a lot of good things in reforming the agency," Brown said. "But if they want more information, we're happy to provide that."

Lawmakers pointed to several recent incidents as cause for concern:

On July 4, Lamont Davis, a 17-year-old with a juvenile record dating to age 10, was charged as an adult with attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of a 5-year-old girl during a teen fight in Southwest Baltimore.

On July 20, the state's independent juvenile services monitor released a report about a violent assault on employees in May, followed by an escape, at the Victor Cullen Center, the state's only locked treatment facility for teenage boys convicted of crimes. The report concluded that the center is not rehabilitating some of the state's most dangerous juveniles.

"What's going on right now is pathetic, and people should be outraged," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat and member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "I just think we're better than this. I can't believe this is the legacy we're going to leave. We walked in with a failed juvenile justice system and we're going to walk out with one that's still bad?"

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said it is up to state lawmakers to demand wholesale changes, including better employee training, more intense therapeutic programs in juvenile facilities and better at-home services.

"The legislature can have a major impact," said Zirkin, who is not a member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "We can demand things in the budget. We can pass laws. We can really put our stamp on the state's juvenile policy."

The cost of needed reforms should not deter lawmakers, Zirkin said. "The money you would save, the needless victims you would save, by doing it right would pay for itself many times over."

Lawmakers have been reluctant to heed city prosecutors' calls to add more crimes to the list of offenses for which juveniles can be charged as adults. But Vallario, a defense attorney, said Tuesday that it might be time to rethink that position, though he added that he is "reluctant to shovel more people into the adult system."

Frosh said it is "premature" for lawmakers to say they have lost faith in DeVore because of the system's "intractable problems." O'Malley and DeVore have pointed to reductions this year in juvenile homicides and the number of youths arrested on murder charges as evidence that the system is improving.

The state plans three new 48-bed locked facilities similar to the Victor Cullen Center, but construction will take years. In the meantime, more than 200 juvenile offenders are receiving treatment in other states or are behind bars in pre-trial facilities while they await a placement.

But when cases such as Davis' and reports documenting problems at the Cullen center emerge, "it makes you wonder," Frosh said. "Statistically, some things look better, but it doesn't mean we're doing as good as we should be doing."

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