The election is 18 months away, he hasn't formally declared his intentions, but Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sounded like a candidate for governor yesterday -- even taking a page from his Republican rival's successful 2002 playbook.

The Democratic mayor attacked Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s effort to fix the troubled state juvenile justice agency and unveiled his 10-point package of reforms, marking his first specific plan on how he would govern Maryland.

"The system cries out for leadership," O'Malley said at a City Hall news conference yesterday. The mayor's line was lifted straight from Ehrlich's critique of former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend leading up to the former congressman's 2002 gubernatorial victory. Part of Ehrlich's platform was to reform the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which had been overseen by Townsend.

"I'm talking about Governor Ehrlich's leadership," O'Malley said. "This is not so much about the next election as it is about the next generation."

Ehrlich and Republicans responded by saying O'Malley's announcement was an obvious political ploy aimed at gaining maximum exposure for himself rather than at helping children caught up in a cycle of drugs and violence.

"We welcome his involvement -- finally," said Greg Massoni, an Ehrlich spokesman. "It's long overdue that the mayor get involved.

"I trust O'Malley's plan will work better than his plan to solve the homicide crisis in Baltimore, which is what he ran on," Massoni said.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is expected to face O'Malley in next year's Democratic gubernatorial primary, has also been critical of Ehrlich's handling of juvenile services. But he has not released his plan for reform, and a Duncan spokesman declined to comment on O'Malley's ideas yesterday.


Audra Miller, communications director for the Maryland Republican Party, called O'Malley a "Johnny-come-lately" to an issue that Ehrlich has been trying to fix since he took office.

"Mayor O'Malley should leave the heavy lifting to people who are working on solutions rather than on personal ambitions," Miller said.

O'Malley said that improving services for at-risk youth has been a priority of his administration since he took office. He announced yesterday that he was doubling the $1 million budget of a city program called Operation Safe Kids, which provides education, mental health and drug treatment services for juvenile criminals. The city reported drastic reductions in arrest rates and improvements in school attendance for youths involved in the program. A large majority found jobs and received mental and substance abuse treatment.

"There's a lack of leadership on the issue of juvenile services," O'Malley said. "Lack of leadership. Lack of follow-up. Lack of management. Lack of vision. Lack of effectiveness. Lack of any framework for the future."

O'Malley said Ehrlich should sign two bills approved by the General Assembly this session. One measure -- drafted by the O'Malley administration and introduced by the city's delegation -- would give the city access to the records of juvenile offenders to better serve their needs. The other bill, introduced by Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, aims to provide more independent oversight of the agency.

"I think the mayor's plan is very good," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and longtime O'Malley supporter. "It says in general terms what needs to get done."

The mayor's 10-point plan calls for delivering comprehensive mental and substance abuse services as well as intensive follow-up on requirements for rehabilitation. It seeks more accountability of the agency by publishing performance data and by the full public disclosure of juvenile homicide victims and of any youths who die in the agency's custody.

O'Malley proposes steps to ensure the safety of juveniles in custody with safe and therapeutic environments. He said the agency needs to better protect the community from repeat offenders by identifying the patterns of juveniles caught up in the drug trade before they kill or are killed.

The city health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, said his department had devised a statistical analysis demonstrating when intervention is most vital. He said the average age for fatal and nonfatal shooting victims is 16. Those who had been shot were arrested an average of 5.6 times since the age of 12.

"You have about a four-year window between the first arrest and when they are first shot," Beilenson said. "The single common thread was involvement in the drug trade."

O'Malley said he was budgeting $2 million for Operation Safe Kids, which Beilenson manages. The money will come from the $37.5 million surplus in the city's current-year budget.

Juvenile services advocates praised the mayor for getting more involved but said they have heard the political rhetoric before.

"Leadership and accountability has been sorely lacking at the Department of Juvenile Services," said Cameron E. Miles, outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "We appreciate any and all attention -- and follow-through -- to fix this system."

Officials from the Department of Juvenile Services and Ehrlich's administration said the agency is working on the kind of comprehensive reform that O'Malley is calling for.

Massoni said that the state agency has made "incredible progress" at reform but that much more needs to be done. He said he welcomes O'Malley's collaboration but added that the mayor should not be casting the efforts in political terms.

"This is not about Democrat or Republican. It's about saving kids," Massoni said.

Looking to 2006

Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, said the issue will become only more politicized as the 2006 governor's race nears, especially as the agency's recent troubles have occurred in nearly all of the state's biggest jurisdictions.

The state's independent monitor of the agency recently reported abuse at youth detention centers in Baltimore and Montgomery County.

Those reports followed scathing assessments by the Maryland Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor in September finding that the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center was severely understaffed and dangerously out of control. Federal investigators last year reported violent conditions at other facilities, too.