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Plan seeks to monitor delinquents

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An army of probation officers would surround Maryland's most high-risk delinquents under a new state plan that would sharply change how juveniles are treated once released from confinement.

The secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Bishop L. Robinson, wants to add about 150 probation officers, part of a "wrap-around" plan to prevent released delinquents from returning to crime. His proposal is outlined in a report to be delivered to legislators this morning.

In addition, Robinson is calling for monitors for the department's programs and facilities and for an increased emphasis on treating juveniles with mental health problems.

The department has been chronically troubled, and sweeping plans have been offered before. But even advocates for delinquents who have been critical of the agency for years say the new plan - if implemented - could mean the first real reform in decades.

"It would be a change of huge magnitude," said Heather Ford, a director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "What we still don't know is whether they'll really go ahead and fund it."

No budget figures for Robinson's plan have been made public, and officials say none will be available until November.

But Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the state's point person on criminal issues, has lauded Robinson as the person who could best turn around the troubled department, and yesterday she said she will work to get the money necessary to make his plan a reality.

"We're going to look at the cost and do the best we can to implement this," she said.

Robinson's proposal is included in his most detailed blueprint to date for reforming the juvenile justice agency. Obtained by The Sun, the plan is more than 100 pages long but lacks time frames for implementation and costs.

Those details are due to go to the legislature by Nov. 1.

Robinson's plan also calls for:

Reducing minority overrepresentation in the state's juvenile jails. Studies have shown that white juveniles with the same criminal records as minority juveniles were more likely to be treated for problems, rather than jailed, after committing crimes.

Reducing overcrowding at the state's juvenile facilities. Nearly all Maryland's detention facilities are at or exceed capacity.

Improving the department's technology to better track delinquents through the system.

The legislature is scheduled to hold hearings on the plan Tuesday.

Legislators ordered the plan last session after news reports that the department routinely locked up delinquents, then released them with no meaningful probation. If Robinson's plan is implemented, delinquents and their families would have far more follow-up care.

By adding new people to his probation department, Robinson seeks to assemble a force of one officer for every 15 high-risk delinquents, which generally means those released from detention facilities. Currently, some probation officers are responsible for monitoring as many as 70 delinquents at a time.

The officers would work in teams of two, together responsible for 30 youths. As part of a "wrap-around team" - to wrap around the teens to help make sure they don't commit another crime - the officers would work with mentors and monitors drawn from the community and with a master's-level mental health professional to develop after-care plans.

Ford, of Advocates for Children and Youth, said money is needed not only for probation officers but also for community programming called for in Robinson's plan.

"They really emphasize the neighborhoods and the community but they don't have the money in the budget for that yet," she said. "We think they're making a good-faith effort. Now we need to see whether the money will be there."

Robinson declined to comment on the plan.

Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said promises have been made before but the department appears headed in the right direction. Now he wants to see if the money will be there.

"I don't want to be pessimistic, but if we're into smoke and mirrors, we ain't buying," McComb said.

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