Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Thursday that the state would close the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the state's beleaguered juvenile detention facility in Baltimore County, as part of what he called a "new day" for the juvenile justice system.
During a news conference outside the school's barbed wire-topped fences, Ehrlich (R) also announced a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which had been investigating conditions at Hickey and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.
In a report released last year after a nearly two-year probe, the Justice Department found a "deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse" by staff members at the facilities, instances in which staff members did not intervene in fights, and a lack of suicide-prevention, medical and mental health services.
Conditions at the facilities violated the residents' constitutional rights, the report found.
Under Ehrlich's plan, the 130-bed residential portion of the Hickey School would be shuttered by Nov. 30. The residents would be placed in privately run community-based programs, which would offer more intimate and individualized care, Ehrlich said.
The governor's plan also calls for the higher-security, 72-bed detention center on Hickey's 200-acre campus to be replaced by a facility that would house juvenile offenders from throughout the Baltimore region. The cost and timing of that project were not announced.
Ehrlich, who pledged to reform juvenile services during his campaign for governor, said the state has made substantial progress in fixing a "dysfunctional" system he had inherited from previous administrations. Chief among the improvements, he said, was the elimination of crowding at Cheltenham, where the average daily population has dropped from 235 to 80.
Despite those steps, Ehrlich said, conditions at Hickey were "intolerable." Community settings are better than institutions for helping troubled youths, he said.
"You talk about a violation of constitutional rights," he said of Hickey. "It was a living model of what a system should not become."
Under the settlement with the Justice Department, the state is required to meet bench marks on improving suicide prevention, mental health care and special education services for juveniles in its care. A team of monitors to be selected by the state and the Justice Department will begin monitoring the troubled facilities and issue reports every six months.
If after three years conditions have not improved, the Justice Department could renew its complaint in U.S. District Court. Bradley J. Schlozman, acting U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, said closing the Hickey school and the other improvements the state has made demonstrates its "commitment to reforming these institutions and safeguarding the rights of incarcerated youth."
"The problems clearly had existed for many years, and they cried out for institutional reform," he said.
He added that the federal government will continue to have "very active supervision and oversight" and that the "work is just beginning."
Sharon Rubinstein, spokeswoman for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit group, said to "step away from institutional care is both sensible and necessary. It's absolutely the right way to turn, and it's something advocates have been crying out for consistently."
Cameron Miles, community outreach director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said he is "encouraged but guarded. It's one thing to say something, but then comes the follow-through."
Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), who submitted a bill in the last legislative session calling for Hickey to be broken up into smaller residential treatment programs, applauded the closing of the school. But he said sending more troubled juveniles into community settings would be a "public safety nightmare. We don't have the capacity in the community. It's not even close. How can we put more kids in that system?"
He said there are problems with oversight and a "complete lack of standards" for privately run group homes.
Kenneth C. Montague Jr., state secretary of juvenile services, disagreed with Zirkin, saying there is more than enough capacity and oversight. Children who could threaten public safety would be kept in secure facilities, he said.
"They are equipped to deal with the more difficult children," he said.