Governor candidates each vowed juvenile reforms

Campaign may coincide with court hearings on teacher killing

May 20, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

One week after Gov. Martin O'Malley took the reins from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a teenager died while in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Services. The new governor shuttered an overcrowded, privately run Carroll County facility and pledged to develop a network of small, state-run youth prisons.

But as the Democratic governor prepares for a rematch with the Republican he ousted, he must contend with another high-profile death at a juvenile facility, this time in a state-administered program. A teacher at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County was killed in February, her body discovered just outside the doors of the small building where she taught. Authorities are expected to soon charge a 13-year-old student in the death of Hannah Wheeling, and court proceedings could bump against the November election.

O'Malley and Ehrlich each call the Department of Juvenile Services one of the most troubled and troublesome agencies in state government. Each took office vowing to reform it, with a focus on smaller facilities and community programs, and said they accomplished much in their four-year terms. They say they'll make juvenile justice a priority of the next four years.

But if history is a guide, solutions for how to handle young violent offenders could elude whoever wins in November, and the realities of slumping state tax revenue and other agenda items could quickly swamp campaign promises.

"It's not easy, because there's nothing good politically when you look under that rock," said state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has studied the agency, adding that Ehrlich and O'Malley both deserve credit for paying attention to an agency that had long been neglected.

Others say neither governor moved rapidly enough to bring change to a system that, when working properly, turns kids' lives around. Child advocates point to an upward trend in the rearrest rate for juveniles released from youth facilities, an increase that comes even as the state pumps more money into the agency each year.

'Dysfunctional' system

"What I would say for both of these governors is that the juvenile justice system has remained significantly dysfunctional," said Matthew Joseph, who, as director of the Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, has tracked the system for almost 15 years.

Sen. James Brochin, another Baltimore County Democrat who discussed the agency with governor in a private meeting earlier this year, said, "There needs to be more of a sincere interest in this issue before things will change."

The Department of Juvenile Services supervises more than 10,000 teens who have been in trouble with the law. The teens deemed by judges and juvenile agency employees to be the most dangerous — about 700 on a given day — are in secure detention as they await court hearings or their 18th birthday. Others are monitored in halfway-house-like settings or in their communities, sometimes while wearing GPS monitoring devices on their ankles.

The agency, which employs more than 2,000 residential advisers, managers, teachers, counselors and other workers, has been beset with problems for decades. Officials have long grappled with high levels of employee turnover while trying to balance punishment and treatment.

In his 2002 campaign to become governor, Ehrlich attacked Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on juvenile justice, which she was in charge of overseeing. Townsend had touted the "success" of youth reform boot camps even as reports surfaced about extensive abuses taking place at them.

Ehrlich pledged to create a "child-first culture" and make juvenile justice reform a hallmark of his administration. He appointed Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Democrat and reform advocate, to lead the agency, which the governor renamed "juvenile services" to emphasize what he called his philosophy of "focusing on the savables."

Ehrlich said in a recent interview that he was "passionate" about juvenile justice issues. "I put energy, attention and personnel into it. I know these issues very well, and I know there are models in other states that are working," he said.

As governor, he enacted legislation that makes the Maryland State Department of Education, not juvenile services, responsible for teaching young offenders. (The change must be complete by 2012, and many facilities still employ juvenile services teachers.) He said he also improved access to drug treatment and boosted involvement of community groups in juvenile issues.

Ehrlich closed most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and reduced the population of Cheltenham by about half. The U.S. Department of Justice had begun investigating poor conditions at those facilities in 2002, resulting three years later in a consent decree that allowed for federal monitoring.

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