- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

BALTIMORE — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday ordered the closure of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, an aging detention center for juveniles that for decades has been criticized for its substandard conditions and failure to rehabilitate offenders.

“Today we write the final chapter in the story of the Hickey School,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said at a press conference in front of the Baltimore County facility. “In other words, Hickey is history or will be history in the short term.”

The school dates to the 1920s and in recent decades has struggled with dilapidated buildings, numerous escapes, violence among the inmates and abuse by guards.

Juvenile justice advocates long had called for the dismantling of the school, and yesterday they applauded the governor’s action.

“Hickey needs to be closed,” said Cameron E. Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. “It should have been closed.”

Mr. Miles said he wanted the state to redirect the resources quickly to programs such as trade schools and apprenticeships to help some of the 50,000 juveniles — mostly nonviolent offenders — arrested annually in Maryland.

Mr. Ehrlich ordered the school’s short-term housing units to close Nov. 30. About two-thirds of the facility’s roughly 190 youths will be transferred to smaller, private institutions or to programs in their homes and communities. The more serious offenders will remain in Hickey’s detention unit until it is replaced by a proposed detention center serving the Baltimore region. The new center is part of an Ehrlich administration plan to move from centralized juvenile detention facilities to regional centers.

Mr. Ehrlich also announced an agreement with the Justice Department to end federal intervention in the state’s juvenile detention centers that began during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

The agreement, which did not require the Hickey School’s closure, outlines measures to ensure better health and educational services for youths.

Unlike the Glendening administration, the Ehrlich administration has worked with federal investigators to improve conditions at the school and at the formerly overcrowded Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George’s County, said Bradley J. Schlozman, the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

“In contrast to the civil rights division’s prior experiences here, Governor Ehrlich and his administration demonstrated a fully cooperative spirit throughout our investigation and made clear, in both word and deed, that juvenile justice reform is a priority,” he said.

Still, Democrats have criticized the governor’s reform efforts.

A report in March that a guard punched a juvenile offender at a detention center in Rockville prompted Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, Democrats and likely contenders in next year’s gubernatorial race, to criticize Mr. Ehrlich for breaking his promise to reform juvenile justice.

“We inherited a system that had been failing for many years, despite all good intentions by a host of elected officials from both parties.” said Mr. Ehrlich, who as a state delegate in the late 1980s tried fixing problems at the Hickey School.

Delegate John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Republican whose Baltimore County district includes the Hickey School, said the Democrats’ criticism is unfounded. “They want you to come in and fix it right away, [but] it doesn’t happen right away,” he said.

Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and proponent of juvenile justice reform, commended the closing the Hickey School but was concerned about violent youths returning to their communities.

LaWanda Edwards, a state Department of Juvenile Services spokeswoman, said such fears are exaggerated and misplaced. “We are not going to have a situation where kids who have committed more serious offenses will just be let out on the street,” she said.

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