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Maryland's lawmakers must clean up juvenile justice mess

September 22, 2000

Maryland's lawmakers must clean up juvenile justice mess



Maryland's Secretary of Juvenile Justice says that before he took office in April, the department squandered millions of dollars on a computer system that works so poorly that officials can't even tell how many children are in the system. Bishop Robinson's proposals to fix what's wrong are likely to cost plenty, and raise questions as to who was minding the store.

The department's computer system, Robinson said, cost $14.3 million, about $5.4 million more than original estimates. Worse, he said, it doesn't work because of problems with the hardware and the software and because the department never had a good plan for using technology.

At present, juvenile court personnel have a tough time getting the system to yield the records they need. According to Robinson, the system should be set up to give judges, prosecutors, defense attorney and police access to records.

Fixing the computer problem is only one part of what Robinson proposed, in a preliminary report on a formal proposal that's due to be presented to committees of the Maryland legislature Nov. 1. So far, it includes cutting in half the number of "high risk" delinquents assigned to each probation officer and providing more drug treatment for juvenile offenders in the communities where they live.

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The department got a $27 million increase in its budget this last session, and it's almost certain that the changes Robinson proposes will cost more.

But before this plan is approved, Maryland citizens need to know who's keeping tabs on how this agency is being run. The boot-camp fiasco uncovered last year got a lot of ink for allegations that the young offenders were physically mistreated.

But the real scandal was that after finishing that rigorous program, they were dumped back in their old neighborhoods with no additional support, even though the department had cash - funds it never spent - for after-camp counseling.

Somebody wasn't watching and demanding performance, and before additional dollars are appropriated, citizens need to know who fouled up, and be assured that it won't happen again.

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