Maryland's troubled juvenile justice system would get a $17 million boost as part of the budget proposal that Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) will present to the General Assembly next week, with much of the increase aimed at easing crowded conditions in the state's youth detention facilities.
This spending package would mark the biggest increase in the budget for the Department of Juvenile Justice since the the governor took office in 1995. It comes on the heels of several embarrassing and troubling episodes for the agency during the past year, including revelations of physical abuse by guards at a state-run boot camp in Western Maryland.
Lawmakers also are drafting several reform bills, including a proposal to create an independent oversight board for the agency. Yet it remains to be seen how receptive legislative leaders will be toward efforts aimed at a department that many advocates believe has long been neglected because it represents no politically powerful constituency.
"It's just like homeless people. Nobody has to pay attention to them, because they don't vote," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. (D-Baltimore), who is the chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on family and juvenile law and is drafting several of the reform measures.
The budget proposal includes $12.2 million in spending for the next fiscal year, which starts in July, and $4.9 million to address current needs. The total agency budget in the coming fiscal year would be $163 million, according to administration officials.
Most of the funds--$7 million--would be used to add 280 slots for juvenile offenders who need to be housed in residential programs after their cases have been adjudicated. That would allow authorities to transfer the juveniles more rapidly from crowded detention centers, which are meant to house youths who are waiting to see judges. Many offenders now wait in detention for weeks for placements ordered by a judge before space becomes available.
Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who is in charge of juvenile justice for the administration, said the proposals contained in the budget are a continuation of the work that has been done in recent years to improve the department. "We're building on what we've done," she said.
Several juvenile justice advocates interviewed yesterday praised the expected proposal as a step in the right direction toward much needed reforms.
James P. McComb, the chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, called the package the most progressive budget proposal for juvenile justice in years. "What's happening here is that they're putting a lot of money on the table, and it's the right thing to do."
Although the coalition had sought a $20 million spending increase, McComb and other advocates said they believed the agency's troubles will not be solved by adding money alone. In fact, some said the Department of Juvenile Justice is in such disarray that internal problems need to be fixed so that the agency can be entrusted to function properly.
"This is a very positive sign that they're trying to respond to the situation, but money can fix only part of the problem. There's a lot of systemic reform that also needs to happen," said Vincent Schiraldi, the executive director of the District-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
"It's good that they're starting to pay attention, but it's not going to solve the problem. This is a system that is broken," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who last year set up his own county task force to look at juvenile justice and who also is considered a key potential challenger to Townsend for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002.
Still, advocates are hopeful that the attention currently being placed on the system will lead to some of those legislative reforms being enacted in the General Assembly session that got under way this week.
Lawmakers are drafting several reform bills for introduction during this legislative session, including measures that would create the independent oversight agency to monitor the department; impose a set of standards for treatment of juveniles in detention; and set guidelines for how long youths can be "warehoused" in detention centers as they await placement in a program.
State Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) said yesterday in an interview that he believes there are needs in the system that should be supported by the General Assembly, citing educational and recreational programs as examples. The Senate president also said reforms should wait until the agency recovers from last month's shake-up--when its five top officials, including the head of the department, were fired--and a successor with a vision of how to fix the system is appointed.
"Everything should be put on hold until we find a new director of juvenile services, in terms of what can be done to address these problems," Miller said.
Other items in the governor's budget proposal include $1 million to expand the state's safe school initiative called Spotlight on Schools, in which juvenile counselors work inside selected schools. The funds would add 35 counselors, increasing the total in the program to 126.
In addition, $1.5 million is allocated for across-the-board increases in mental health treatment and various types of counseling and education programs for at-risk and disruptive youths. Thirty-three youth counselors would be added to after-care programs, which monitor juveniles after their release. And nearly $1 million would be used to provide salary increases for youth supervisors and counselors.
And Glendening's capital budget will include $13.4 million to start design plans for two 24-bed detention centers--one on the Eastern Shore and one in Western Maryland--which should help reduce crowding at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Montgomery County.