Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has been given more responsibility than any of her recent predecessors--from running Maryland's criminal justice system to heading up economic development efforts--and she has long maintained that her standing has offered a real record voters can use to evaluate her.

Recently, that has been more true than ever.

In the past two weeks, allegations raised in newspaper stories of widespread physical abuse of young offenders at the state's three boot camps prompted Townsend (D) and Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to order an internal investigation, to shut down the camps' operations and, on Wednesday, to send five top Department of Juvenile Justice officials packing.

Their response was swift and decisive, but the questions will linger, especially about Townsend, who has put justice issues at the top of her agenda and who wants to use that agenda to launch her into the governorship:

Should she have known about the abuse? Was she misled by Juvenile Justice Department officials? Was she as active in overseeing the department's operations as she could have been? And will there will be any lasting political damage--or benefit--from what was easily one of the most serious crises the administration has faced?

"There was a problem. We responded to it quickly. We made changes and we're moving on," she said in an interview yesterday.

In recent months, Townsend has had a soaring political ride. She is the undisputed front-runner for governor in 2002, sealing up the support of key interest groups and collecting nearly $1 million for her future campaign.

But the boot camp controversy exposed the downside of being a lieutenant governor with real responsibility: Sometimes things can go drastically wrong. Focusing on criminal justice issues increases the risks, because it is such a volatile issue.

Several of Townsend's political rivals are reluctant to attack her handling of the mess, saying not enough is known of her role. But they say how she now responds to larger issues of more funding for the Juvenile Justice Department and how vigorously she pursues better drug treatment, job training and mental health counseling will be key to the real reforms the troubled agency needs.

"She has been in charge of juvenile justice for five years now," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who may face Townsend in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. "Firing a few people is not going to solve the problem."

He and many others expect juvenile justice to move much higher on the agenda during the General Assembly session which begins Jan. 12.

And many expect it to remain an issue in the 2002 gubernatorial election. "Juvenile justice will be a major issue in the campaign," said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R-Md.), who is the GOP's leading contender for governor. "It won't be who was asleep at the switch [on the boot camps]. By then, that will be decided. It'll be what do we do with this monumental problem" of young offenders needing preventative programs, education and intense supervision?

Townsend has long championed boot camps as an effective way to rehabilitate youthful offenders, teaching them discipline and respect. Of the dozens of complaints, calls, letters or e-mail messages she has received in the State House over the years, none detailed abuse at the camps, which she helped start three years ago, Townsend said. She said the first word she received was in August from a Baltimore Sun reporter preparing a story about the boot camps. The reporter, she said, described pummeling of cadets nearly a year earlier.

Townsend said she had her senior staff person on criminal justice issues, Adam Gelb, spoke with Juvenile Justice Department officials, including Secretary Gilberto de Jesus, to ensure that youths weren't being mistreated and to reiterate that any physical abuse of the youths would not be tolerated.

Townsend said department officials denied there was any excessive force in the boot camps. Then, the Sun published stories and photos detailing the youths being punched and pushed to the ground while shackled, suffering broken bones and split lips.

The stories prompted the internal investigation that determined there was widespread mistreatment of the youths and led to Wednesday's dismissals.

Townsend said she remains a fan of the military-style boot camps for some young offenders, which disappointed activists like Heather Ford, who directs the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

Ford said the camps aren't effective and should be scrapped. The latest controversy, she said, is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for the state to sink badly needed money into the Juvenile Justice Department's $140 million budget to upgrade programs.

Townsend said there would be more money in the budget Glendening proposes next month, but she declined to say how much.

"A leader is judged by what they do, what they accomplish and how they respond in crisis," she said. "It's fair to judge me on what I can do as lieutenant governor."

CAPTION: "We're moving on," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend