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If we build $70 million juvenile jail, we'll fill it

Time for some progressive thought on kids who commit crimes

Dan Rodricks

7:13 PM EDT, October 3, 2012

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The governor of Maryland, a Democrat who fostered a reputation for being tough on crime to neutralize claims that he's some sort of liberal, says it's full speed ahead for a new juvenile jail in Baltimore — most recent price tag, $70 million.

This is the sort of predictable, inside-the-box thinking we get from Martin O'Malley and from politicians of both major parties.

If O'Malley had a truly progressive thought — such as proposing a complete change in how the state handles kids who commit serious crimes — that would be news. That would mean he was suddenly taking a political risk, sticking his neck out for a principle.

It's not news that O'Malley goes on a radio show and says plans for a new youth detention center in Baltimore, first hatched under his Republican predecessor, are "moving forward," despite substantive opposition to the idea, and despite the cost.

The governor apparently believes that if there's one thing taxpayers don't mind, it's spending money to lock guys up.

Even if they're 14 years old.

Clearly, something is terribly wrong with the Baltimore City Detention Center's juvenile section, which is where kids charged as adults are held.

But there's something even worse about a criminal justice system that treats juveniles as adults, and so-called progressives like O'Malley know it.

They know it, of course, but don't do anything about it. And they don't do anything about it because they see little to gain and a lot to lose.

Into the realm of criminal justice few politicians ever tread, so little ever changes.

The idea, for instance, that drug addicts should receive treatment — that they should be assigned to hospitals instead of prisons — never gains traction among Democrats or Republicans despite years of opinion polls showing considerable public support for treatment over punishment.

And dull-headed pols from both parties continue to support and fund the war on drugs, despite public sentiment that it's a loser.

Or take the common-sense concept, pushed by O'Malley's Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, that from the time they enter our prisons until the time they leave, certain offenders should be prepared for successful re-entry into society to reduce the risk that they'll commit crimes again. Ehrlich's efforts never got off the ground; the Democrats who controlled the General Assembly saw to it.

We have a parole system in Maryland, with a taxpayer-funded parole commission assigned to objectively review the applications of inmates who become eligible for release.

Over the years, the commission has recommended for parole dozens of men and women serving life sentences. Some of them went into our prisons as juveniles and remained there well into their 50s and 60s, and still they can't get out.

You might be fine with that. You might believe that life means life, and parole should be abolished. Fair enough.

But, fact is, we haven't abolished parole in Maryland. Even inmates serving life have a shot at getting out someday, except that they don't. With only two exceptions — one of them a 44-year-old man who was sentenced to life when he was a 15-year-old boy — O'Malley has refused to allow lifers out of prison.

Under state law, the governor gets to do that, and the last three Democrats did. For purely political reasons they created de facto life without parole even for inmates who weren't given that sentence.

And never mind that it costs us about $28,000 a year to continue to incarcerate men and women whom the parole commission approves for release.

Now, when it comes to juveniles who commit serious crimes, we decided years ago that they can be tried as adults. It's the state law for certain violent crimes.

Given that, we have to house them as they await trial. The law says they cannot be housed with adult inmates, which is why we have that juvenile section of the city detention center.

There have been eruptions of violence there, documented by The Baltimore Sun, and on the radio the other day O'Malley called the place "a very old and decrepit facility." So he thinks the solution is a new place with 120 beds at $70 million.

Never mind that experts who studied this say it's the wrong approach, that the number of juveniles who commit adult crimes has been dropping, that some 70 percent of youths charged as adults end up having their cases dismissed or sent to the juvenile justice system anyway.

And never mind the larger question: whether kids should be charged as adults at all.

Even the conservative-leaning Supreme Court has been slowly moving away from the idea that teenagers should be treated just as we treat grown men and women.

There's another reason we should not spend $70 million on a juvenile jail: Prisoner population expands to fill the space available. If we build it, we'll fill it. And if we do that, we'll continue to neglect the hard work of improving the lives of at-risk kids before they commit crimes and the even harder work of changing them after they do.

drodricks@baltsun.com