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'We spent a lot and didn't get very much'


Maryland's Department of Juvenile Justice squandered millions of dollars on a computer system fraught with problems, and taxpayers will have to spend millions more to keep track of the state's delinquents, state officials testified at a legislative hearing yesterday.

Bishop L. Robinson, who was appointed secretary of the department in April, told legislators that the "information technology" system was haphazardly slapped together and cannot fulfill his department's most basic needs. Replacing it or dramatically altering it would be the latest multimillion-dollar bill for taxpayers from an agency struggling to reform.

Further, he said, the system is only one of his department's problems, and he offered an outline for change that is certain to cost far more than the $162 million annual budget currently allocated for juvenile justice - which includes a $27 million increase added last legislative session.

Robinson has been systematically dismantling and rebuilding the juvenile justice agency since his appointment, and yesterday's hearing served as a progress report to two key oversight committees. His bottom line: He inherited a mess from Gov. Parris N. Glendening's last secretary, and the department has its work cut out.

His remarks about the computer system were in response to a report from legislative auditors who testified at the hearing that the department had deceived them during past budget requests. Juvenile justice officials knew since 1997, the auditors said, that the computer system would cost far more than was made public.

The computer system, known as ASSIST, has cost $14.3 million, about $5.4 million more than originally approved by the legislature.

"What we're saying is they weren't quite honest with their estimates," William Devins, the state's director of performance audits, told the oversight committees.

Robinson's testimony followed. He agreed with the conclusions of the auditors, but made it clear that inaccurate cost estimates and problems with the system's hardware and software were not of his making. "I cannot take credit for any of what happened from 1997 to April 2000," he said.

The previous administration, Robinson said, tossed away money on a system that likely will have to be all but scrapped because the department had no master plan for its technological needs. For example, juvenile court personnel have difficulty accessing the department's computerized records. Robinson wants a system accessible to not only juvenile justice officials but also judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and mental health professionals, among others.

"I regret this is the case, but we just spent a lot of money and we didn't get very much," he said. "We intend to salvage what we can. By the same token, it's almost like starting from Day 1."

Robinson was named secretary to replace Gilberto de Jesus, whom Glendening ousted in December after news reports of physical abuses of juveniles in state custody and accounts of dismally failed probation programs.

Yesterday was Robinson's first formal report to legislators since being named secretary, and he made it clear to them that he intended not to tinker with the agency but to fundamentally change the way it does business.

He wants more emphasis on education, drug treatment and mental health services, and he called for locking fewer delinquents in juvenile jails, instead treating them in the community.

His plan revolves around more thoroughly evaluating teens as they enter the juvenile justice system, aiming to jail only those deemed a risk to society. Others would be funneled to proper treatment, most commonly substance abuse and psychological counseling and educational programs.

He presented a plan to assign two probation officers for every 30 "high-risk" delinquents released from detention - a dramatic reduction in current caseloads, which can number 60 delinquents per officer.

What Robinson did not present was a price tag for his plans.

Yesterday's hearing was merely a progress report, ordered by the House education and economic development subcommittee and the Senate subcommittee for public safety, transportation and environment. Last legislative session, the subcommittees ordered a more detailed blueprint - to include costs and time frames for implementation - due to them by Nov. 1. Robinson said yesterday that he would meet the deadline.

Advocates for change in the juvenile justice agency said Robinson's outline was encouraging, but they want to see details.

"And more than anything, the critical issue is whether his plan will be funded," said Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "What he's proposing is going to cost some money."

Reaction from legislators on the money spent on the information system showed their frustration at trying to fix a department that - like juvenile justice agencies in many states - continues to make mistakes. But it also underscored the political importance the issue has for Glendening's point person on crime issues, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has been sharply criticized for problems at the department.

She has promised to do what is necessary to turn around the juvenile justice agency, and when de Jesus was ousted last year, both she and Glendening praised Robinson as the person who could plan and execute meaningful reform.

"There's no question there's enough blame to go around, but I think the lieutenant governor has to take a lot of it," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican from Princess Anne. "It's the one area she was responsible for, and it's been a disaster."

Michael Sarbanes, Townsend's director of policy and planning, said Townsend did not hesitate to improve the juvenile justice agency once its shortfalls came to light in December.

"When problems surfaced in the department, the lieutenant governor and the administration responded quickly and decisively about putting together a new leadership team at the department and a clear plan of action," he said.

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