Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) yesterday named a Democratic lawmaker from Baltimore to head the state's Department of Juvenile Justice, promising to turn the troubled agency around by treating "savable" young criminal offenders instead of locking them up with adults.
Ehrlich's choice of outgoing Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who lost his seat in the fall elections, drew praise from advocates and key lawmakers in the Democratic-led General Assembly. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) predicted that the nomination would sail through the state Senate, which must approve Cabinet-level appointments.
"He's a great guy -- principled and smart," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The department needs a lot of work, but if anyone has the experience to do it, he does."
Ehrlich has filled five of 22 Cabinet positions, with a careful eye on keeping his campaign promise to surround himself with top administrators who reflect the political and racial diversity of the state. Montague is the first Democrat named to a top position and the second African American. One of Ehrlich's picks is a woman.
Montague, 60, a lawyer and 16-year veteran of the House, brings strong credentials to an agency that has been plagued by scandal and mismanagement. He chaired a joint committee on legislative ethics and is noted for steering it through several high-profile scandals. He never has worked for state government, but as a member of the House Judiciary Committee he pushed to reform the agency he now will take over.
The failure to properly follow up on delinquent children who come to the state's attention means "that five years down the road, that unattended child will be in the adult prison system," Montague said. "We will have allowed that person to become a criminal statistic."
Ehrlich made turning the agency around a major issue in his campaign against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who as the state's crime czar oversaw juvenile justice. Although juvenile crime rates declined during her two terms, she was faced with a series of embarrassing disclosures about the state's mistreatment of young offenders.
In 2000, the state closed its juvenile boot camps after reports that guards routinely beat and punched young inmates. Beatings were likewise reported at Cheltenham youth detention center in Prince George's County, where a counselor also impregnated a teenager. And in September, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had launched a broad civil rights investigation into conditions at Maryland's juvenile detention centers.
The "Glendening-Townsend administration failed, or maybe they got a D-minus in just the last year, to address problems in the juvenile justice system," Montague said yesterday.
Both Ehrlich and Montague vowed to reduce the number of young offenders who are prosecuted as adults, in part by building a secure juvenile detention center for young offenders now sentenced as adults. Both are troubled by numbers they said show that young minority offenders are disproportionately targeted for the toughest sentences.
"We are writing off too many savable kids -- that's the bottom line," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich reiterated campaign promises to focus more on treating the drug addiction and mental illness that frequently underlie crimes by minors. But the agency is unlikely to get more money as Ehrlich struggles to close a projected $1.2 billion shortfall in next year's budget.
During the campaign, Ehrlich said his reforms would require $13.4 million in new spending next year alone. But yesterday, the incoming governor said that the budget proposal he will release next week will not contain big increases.
Still, advocates are hopeful.
"It's hard to imagine that he would have picked Ken Montague if he wasn't serious about reforming the system," said Jim McComb of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, a nonprofit watchdog group. "No one has sponsored more -- and more thoughtful -- bills on juvenile justice than Ken. It's a choice that inspires a great deal of confidence."