An ambitious package of legislation to overhaul the state's troubled juvenile justice system was pronounced dead yesterday after Gov. Parris N. Glendening urged the General Assembly to give the agency's new leader a free hand -- a trade-off that immediately angered reform advocates.
Supporters of a bill that would have created an oversight commission for the department acknowledged the measure's demise and blamed Glendening, who said the panel was unnecessary with former public safety chief Bishop L. Robinson coming in to head the agency.
"It would be an affront, quite candidly, to Bishop Robinson," the governor told reporters. "We do not need another bureaucracy."
But juvenile advocates were angry with the bill's impending defeat and said the administration would be held responsible for any problems in state youth facilities that might have been identified early by the commission.
"By the administration defeating this bill, they're telling us 'We want direct responsibility for what happens in these facilities,'" said Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Center on Juvenile Crime and Justice. "If something bad happens to the kids, we're going to hold the administration accountable."
As expected yesterday, Glendening formally appointed Robinson, 73, the department's interim secretary, to take over the juvenile department on a full-time basis. Within minutes, the Senate waived its customary hearing on Cabinet appointments and confirmed Robinson unanimously.
Moments later, the Senate shocked juvenile advocates by reversing itself and killing a relatively minor bill to create an advisory committee to study racial disparities within the system.
"That sends a clear message. The bottom line is give Bishop room," said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, point man on juvenile justice issues for the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, who agreed with the administration's moves yesterday.
Jimeno made clear that a package of three other reform bills would also not be passed before the Assembly adjourns Monday night. "To be honest, I think the bills are dead because the message the Senate sent today is we want to give him the room to develop his action plan," said Jimeno, an Anne Arundel Democrat.
Advocates who had fought for the reform package were disappointed at the turn of events.
"If there was a commitment to reform and the administration got behind these bills, they wouldn't be in trouble," said Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, an umbrella organization of advocacy groups. "We aren't going to stop pushing these issues. That's a promise."
News reports in December revealed that delinquent youths sent to three state boot camps in Western Maryland were beaten and abused. After they were sent back to their homes on "maximum supervised probation," the state agency provided little or no follow-up.
Within a week of the reports, five top officials in the agency, including Secretary Gilberto de Jesus, were ousted and Robinson was brought in as acting secretary. Glendening and his point person on criminal justice issues, Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Towsend, vowed sweeping changes in the agency.
After the General Assembly convened in January, advocates crafted a package of bills to provide oversight and force changes in the troubled department.
The bills, which were sponsored by Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., passed the House of Delegates but have sat in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Montague, a Baltimore Democrat, said he had firm commitments from seven of the committee's 10 members to back the bills and he laid the blame for the package's defeat with Glendening.
"The question is, why are people afraid to vote on these bills?" Montague said. "What motivates them not to have open scrutiny in these institutions?"
One bill called for an independent commission to have access to juvenile detention centers, monitor the department, and advise the secretary. Another bill would have required the department to send youths to treatment programs within a prescribed time frame -- to avoid having them held in detention facilities for months as often happens.
Another bill would have created an advisory body to examine the racial disparity issue -- sought in part because a major study last year showed the agency tended to provide white youths with mental health treatment while incarcerating black youths without such treatments.
Though technically the bills are still alive, the advocates acknowledged they had lost the battle, given yesterday's events.
Robinson, who is leaving a consulting job at Lockheed Martin Corp., seemed unruffled by the tense debate prompted by the reform package.
"I just elected to make a sacrifice. I'm returning to public service where I've spent all my life," said Robinson, former public safety secretary and Baltimore police chief.
Robinson said he looked forward to putting together a strategic plan, drafting standards, establishing a code of conduct for personnel and putting in a new organizational structure "to ensure accountability and integrity throughout the system."
"A primary concern to me is to provide direct care for the children, the youth," he said. "That's No. 1, and restoring public confidence."
Some key senators said they would do nothing that might be viewed as hampering Robinson's ability to run the department.
"Bishop Robinson and I have developed a great relationship and I will be the last guy to micro-manage," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who urged colleagues to reject the advisory committee on minority youth.
"If Bishop wants to do what this bill does, Bishop will do it."
Del. Salima Siler Marriott, the bill's sponsor, shepherded the legislation through the House of Delegates on a near-unanimous vote and then through the conservative Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Marriott said she was surprised by the Senate's 18-28 vote killing the bill.
"It was a beginning," said Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat. "It gave us an opportunity to eliminate racial disparity at the juvenile justice system."
While many legislators have high regard for Robinson's management skills and are willing to give him flexibility, advocates said Robinson's ability alone does not guarantee successful reform.
"We're not going to change juvenile justice without [oversight]," McComb said. "I have a lot of confidence in Bishop Robinson, but he is just one man."
One reform move promised in the wake of the reports of abuse at juvenile justice facilities was an increase of the agency's budget. A 14 percent -- or $147 million -- increase has been approved by the governor and the legislature remains unchanged.