Scathing DJS reports land amid governor's race

Two reports released in the past 24 hours blast the state Department of Juvenile Services for lapses in everything from facility security to medical documentation. The criticism comes less than a month before Election Day, when Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley faces his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

In an interview this morning, O'Malley said Juvenile Services was "the most underperforming department in the state" when he took office in January 2007. "We're still not perfect. We still have a lot of work to do." 

A state legislative audit out Wednesday showed the department was poor at keeping supervision records for even the most dangerous and at-risk kids. In addition, the audit found documentation problems that led to losing $3 million in federal money and signing $150 million in contracts before they were approved by the Board of Public Works.

This morning, the state's independent juvenile monitor issued findings in a teacher killing on the grounds of Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County. A 14-year-old juvenile housed there at the time is charged with the sexual assault and murder of the teacher, Hannah Wheeling. The monitor's report says the facility lacked basic security equipment and staff frequently violated policies requiring constant sight and sound supervision of youth.

Responding to the legislative audit this morning, O'Malley echoed an agency spokesman, saying many of the problems had been corrected in the year since audit review period ended.

"We don't look at it every four years," he said. "We look at it every day."

He also described the February killing of the Cheltenham teacher as one of the "greatest tragedies" in his nearly four years as governor.

Juvenile advocates say neither governor can claim success in reforming the long-troubled agency, which handles youngsters charged with or found responsible for crimes. The Sun has examined the policies of O'Malley and Ehrlich, both of whom pledged reform.

From that story:

If history is a guide, solutions for how to handle young violent offenders could elude whoever wins in November, and the realities of slumping state tax revenue and other agenda items could quickly swamp campaign promises.

"It's not easy, because there's nothing good politically when you look under that rock," said state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has studied the agency, adding that Ehrlich and O'Malley both deserve credit for paying attention to an agency that had long been neglected.

Others say neither governor moved rapidly enough to bring change to a system that, when working properly, turns kids' lives around. Child advocates point to an upward trend in the rearrest rate for juveniles released from youth facilities, an increase that comes even as the state pumps more money into the agency each year.

"What I would say for both of these governors is that the juvenile justice system has remained significantly dysfunctional," said Matthew Joseph, who, as director of the Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, has tracked the system for almost 15 years.

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