By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Challenging his Democratic opponent on her signature issue Wednesday, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich called for improved education, treatment and early intervention in the state’s troubled juvenile justice system.
The proposal strikes directly at his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who oversaw the Department of Juvenile Justice the last eight years.
The agency was investigated during Townsend’s tenure by the federal government for civil rights violations. Critics have charged there are too many escapes and that system mismanagement fails to prevent youth crime.
“Today is about beginning a new era of hope in regard to juvenile, not justice, but juvenile service,” said Ehrlich. “This tragedy lies at the doorstep of the (Gov. Parris) Glendening-Townsend administration.”
Ehrlich’s plan, which would rename the agency the Department of Juvenile Services, adopts a “child-first” philosophy.
The candidate’s juvenile justice plan consists of: — Drug treatment courts. Ehrlich would use federal money to pay for a new statewide court to supervise non-violent drug cases, overseeing treatment and rehabilitation. The state would also designate a contact to guide counties through the federal grant process.
— Increased mental health treatment. The renamed agency would hire more mental health counselors, giving each no more than 25 cases. It also would form a suicide prevention task force. — Racial equity. Ehrlich would appoint an assistant secretary for minority justice to reduce racial bias. — Better diagnosis of youth. Children would receive medical assessments after their first contact with the agency to document physical and mental health, drug use and education needs. — Management reforms. Guidelines would be established to prevent abuse of youth in the system. Townsend’s campaign said Ehrlich’s plan resembles changes she has made at DJJ since 2000.
“We’d like to thank him for our current plan,” said Kate Philips, a Townsend campaign spokeswoman. “Yet again this conservative Republican is endorsing liberal ideals. He put together a very liberal policy package.”
Townsend required more supervision of guards, decreased the population of facilities and improved mental health treatment after new Secretary Bishop L. Robinson was permanently appointed in 2000.
A sign of Townsend’s success, said Philips, is the 27 percent decrease in state juvenile crime between 1996 and 2000.
Ehrlich has not been in favor of these policies in the past, said Philips.
“Why didn’t he send this money home when he was in Washington,” she said, citing a 1997 vote against a federal juvenile crime prevention program. Though drug treatment and intervention are typically Democratic issues, Ehrlich’s plan also includes stiffer enforcement, even for first-time offenders, and new juvenile-only corrections facilities. The new jails, said Ehrlich, would allow judges to keep youths locked-up – but out of adult prisons – if warranted. “We want to ensure every encounter, even the first encounter, has a consequence,” said Ehrlich. “That is clearly not the case today . . . “Our plan is about kids, not creating new criminals.”
Youth boot camps, where The (Baltimore) Sun documented abuse by guards in a 1999 series, are included in the new agency, though not in their current form, said Ehrlich’s running mate Michael Steele.
Ehrlich estimates his plan will cost $200 million, $20 million more than the current budget. Funding the program will not be a problem, Ehrlich said, because his program makes better use of federal money and foundation grants.
Juvenile justice advocates were pleased with Ehrlich’s plan.
“It’s pretty comprehensive,” said Jim McComb, a member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. “It certainly highlights some of the changes we’ve suggested.”
Ehrlich and Townsend’s plan are similar, McComb said, but he said the state should have fewer juvenile lockups and more community prevention programs.
“What we need to see is a commitment to moving the dollars from institutions to community-based programs,” said McComb. “It’s encouraging to see that the debate has been engaged . . . both candidates are taking the issue seriously.”