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Fate of Md.'s Juvenile-Justice Monitor Uncertain

Independent Office Set to Close in July Unless Lawmakers Move by Monday to Save It

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page B10

The extent of chaos during a March 2003 riot at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County was little known until an independent monitor's report described how authorities lost control of the facility for several hours and had to call in a police helicopter and armored vehicle to quell the rampage.

The Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center was barely a year old when a report by the same monitor documented conditions that "posed a threat to the life, health and safety" of the youths there.

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Since the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor opened in 2000, it has been responsible for making public nearly every widely known instance of abuse and violence in Maryland's juvenile detention centers. Its reports have helped spur calls for reform and have put political heat on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), elected in part on a promise to improve the beleaguered juvenile system.

But the office is due to close in July unless the General Assembly can agree by Monday to extend its life or move it to another department.

"The conversation's been going on for 90 days," said Jann Jackson, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, referring to the three-month legislative session. "Who's going to find a home for Ralph?"

That's Ralph Thomas, the director and driving force of the five-member staff at the independent monitor's office. His office is part of a broader agency, the governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, which has been engaged in a political tussle in Annapolis.

The entire agency is set to expire by law in July. The legislature can extend that sunset provision, but Democratic leaders have indicated some unwillingness to do so, saying the agency has failed in its mission and needs to be replaced. Ehrlich aides have accused Democrats of playing politics and of trying to strip the governor of authority.

Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) has proposed legislation that would transfer the independent monitor to the Maryland attorney general's office -- a change that would preserve the monitor and remove the governor's authority over the office. That bill has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

"We need to make sure this office stays open and that it stays independent," Zirkin said.

Ehrlich, in an interview, said he opposes the measure, calling it "a goofy idea."

The attorney general's office, he said, "didn't advocate for it. They're not set up for it. They don't want it."

Kenneth H. Masters, one of Ehrlich's chief lobbyists, said at a hearing this week that the administration is concerned that having the independent monitor in the attorney general's office would create conflicts of interest.

The office charged with representing the government in lawsuits should not supervise an office that investigates many cases that can lead to lawsuits, he argued.

Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton countered that her office is not opposed to the idea of taking control of the independent monitor.

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