ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Justice will officially become the Department of Juvenile Services effective July 1 – a sign, the new administration hopes, of greater things to come.
Gov. Robert Ehrlich prompted the name change and it was approved by the General Assembly, but that was only the beginning for legislators, advocates and state officials working to improve the troubled department.
Juvenile justice in Maryland, which for several years was buffeted by reports of physical and mental abuse of children, benefited from a rare show of mutual support among the three groups.
Ehrlich campaigned on the issue of transforming juvenile justice. After the election, he appointed former Democratic Delegate Kenneth Montague to head the agency, and allocated funds for programs.
“It really spoke to the governor’s commitment to reform,” said James McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition and executive director of Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.
Meanwhile, two legislators, a Republican and Democrat, led the General Assembly in adding more programs and services to the system.
Delegates Anthony O’Donnell, R-Calvert, and Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, posted some successes on their ambitious juvenile reform bills.
“When you can get bipartisan support on an issue that can be as contentious as the criminal justice system . . . I think you have quite a bit to celebrate,” said Cindy Boersma, spokeswoman for the Office of the Public Defender.
Lawmakers considered more than 20 proposals – ranging from requiring more frequent monitoring of group home residents, to arranging more family time for youths, to providing after-care programs for newly released youth and initiating a wholesale evaluation of the process – during the session that ended April 7.
“You’ve got people thinking about different ways to doing things,” said McComb.
But advocates and lawmakers agreed the state’s financial problems hindered substantial progress on the issue.
Legislators began the session with a $2 billion deficit and nearly all state services sustained substantial cuts.
Juvenile justice programs with high projected costs were nixed or delayed until next year.
While Ehrlich allocated funding for drug courts, a proposed office of minority services and a new juvenile facility in Baltimore, the General Assembly slashed it.
Deeper cuts could be forthcoming, as Ehrlich has promised to veto the Legislature’s revenue package and trim programs instead.
“In this budget climate, we expected reductions, but they weren’t cut completely and that’s a very positive sign,” said department spokesman Lee Towers.
Another $7.5 million Ehrlich allocated for the Department of Education to take over schooling at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a residential treatment program for young male offenders, was stripped and the plan delayed for at least a year.
“The good news is it can happen in the future,” McComb said.
Other ambitious proposals, including the creation of mentoring programs and sustained monitoring, became study projects for task forces to determine whether they are likely to succeed in Maryland.
Although there was a “new enthusiasm” this year to improve juvenile services, efforts to reform the system aren’t new.
The Legislature passed other laws in previous years to revive the system. And the department had already begun new programs, including physical and mental health screening for youths entering the system.
“We’re building on accomplishments from the last couple of years,” Towers said.
But the high level of cooperation and an almost synchronized sense of purpose among Maryland officials this year were unique.
“What they’ve (lawmakers) done is, they’ve heightened expectations. We ought to see a clear blueprint for change in the next nine months,” McComb said.
An important change, is the anticipated opening of the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center in the fall, he said.
The state is expected to transfer Baltimore youths detained at the Cheltenham facility, a center where residents have suffered physical and mental abuse, to that new center.
Cheltenham was intended as a juvenile center for Southern Maryland, but Baltimore youths have been detained there.
The department plans to reduce Cheltenham’s 180 beds to 48 after the Baltimore facility opens.
While McComb’s Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition is looking forward to a decrease in Cheltenham’s population, it has spearheaded a campaign to shut down the facility.
“We keep saying `close Cheltenham’ and we’re going to say it until it’s closed,” he said.
But the department has no such plans.
Meanwhile, the department is opening two new detention centers in the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland by year’s end, Towers said.
Currently, about 55,000 cases are referred to the department each year. As of last week, the department had custody of about 2,600 Maryland youths, Towers said.
Given the plethora of issues on the juvenile justice agenda, most acknowledged this year was the continuation of a gradual process. “We have a long way to go,” Delegate O’Donnell said, “(but) I’m very optimistic.”