- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Backed by a group of fidgeting preschool children, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday appealed for legislative support for child-related proposals dealing with education, foster care and juvenile criminals.

“We can and should do a better job of distributing state services to children generally,” the governor said at a press conference at a day care center at the state Department of Natural Resources.

Looking at the children grouped behind him, Mr. Ehrlich, a father of two young sons, quipped, “It’s just like a day at home.”

He reminded the children to use their “inside voices” and commented on their good behavior. The children were mostly quiet during a series of speeches by state officials even though they had waited almost half an hour for the governor to appear.

It was the first of two events Mr. Ehrlich held yesterday to gather public support for his legislative program for the 2005 General Assembly session.

About three hours later, he stood in the snow outside the State House to discuss funding for installation of new technologies that he said will improve public safety and homeland security.

Included are $7.5 million for laptop computers that will give state troopers immediate access to criminal databases in their police cars and $12.5 million to improve the state’s fingerprint-identification system by replacing obsolete equipment. The governor also will propose an expansion of the state’s collection of DNA samples from criminals.

At the heart of his child-related legislative initiatives are two big-ticket items — a $423 million increase in state aid for public schools and a $55 million increase in funding to help local governments build public schools.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, also is putting additional money into programs for juvenile offenders aimed at keeping them at home instead of in jails and providing help for those who are sent to jail when they finish their sentences and returned to their communities.

Young offenders “fare much better when they are connected with their families, connected with their community,” said Kenneth Montague, secretary of juvenile justice.

“These kids come from very difficult neighborhoods,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “It’s silly to expect us to look at these kids and expect a short-term stay in our system will change their lifelong habits.”

The governor said he is proposing a $5.2 million increase in funds to keep more offenders at home or in their communities instead of locking them up.

He included $44 million in his budget to improve foster care programs and $103 million to provide safe, quality child care to an additional 1,300 children, plus money to hire more child welfare workers and improving training for those workers.

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