As lawmakers call for juvenile reforms, the oversight commission they created in 2006 never met

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By Tom LoBianco

Maryland lawmakers and governors have wrestled with seemingly intractable problems in the state’s juvenile services system for more than a decade, reaping both political benefits and despair.

And the killing of a 65-year-old female teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility last month has lawmakers again calling for a review of the Department of Juvenile Services – putting the issue at the center of the agenda for another crucial election season.

In 2005, lawmakers passed a bill to form a legislative oversight panel to review problems in the juvenile services system. When the measure was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership included the oversight panel legislation in a package of more than a dozen vetoes that were overridden at the start of the 2006 session.

Then the oversight group – which was to include six members of the House of Delegates and six members of the Senate – never met.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch never appointed House members to the committee, and a sunset clause in the legislation dissembled the committee at the end of 2007 without it holding a single meeting.

Alexandra Hughes, a Busch spokeswoman, did not explain why the speaker never appointed the House members, but said that other oversight procedures are in place for juvenile services – including the regular budget process which happens every year.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton recalled that he was asked by the chief of staff to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to co-chair the oversight commission.

“It’s hard to look back and guess whether or not it would have made a difference,” said Middleton, a Southern Maryland Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“If you had a set of eyes and a committee that looked into if there were problems, they probably would have addressed that,” he said. “Not having that, who’s to say?”

Middleton said he wasn’t sure why the group never met.

Hannah Wheeling, a 65-year-old teacher at Cheltenham, was found dead on Feb. 18 outside the Prince George’s County facility. A 13-year-old is being held as the top suspect, according to The Baltimore Sun.

It “shows the priority of juvenile service issues,” said Angela Johnese, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth.

If the committee had met, reviewed practices at the state's youth facilities, and issued its findings, reforms could have been in place before Wheeling was killed, Johnese said.
Gubernatorial candidates have regularly cited problems in the juvenile justice system as part of their campaigns over the last decade.

Ehrlich sharply criticized former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s oversight of the juvenile corrections system – an area where she had direct responsibility – when he successfully ran against her in 2002.

Four years later, Gov. Martin O’Malley cited Ehrlich’s inability to fix the system as part of a broader trend, saying the Republican was incapable of managing government.

Since he took office in 2007, O’Malley has had mixed success in his struggle to overhaul the system. Chris Perkins, who was tapped by O’Malley’s Juvenile Services Secretary, Donald W. DeVore, to head the Victor Cullen Youth Academy, was forced to resign after a Baltimore City Paper investigation unearthed allegations of child abuse from his previous work in Montana.

Read more articles and political observations from Tom LoBianco here.
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