Dozens of Baltimore teens and young adults packed a state Senate hearing Wednesday, urging lawmakers not to build a new Baltimore jail for juvenile offenders charged as adults and instead shift efforts to keeping youths from being locked up in the first place.
The comments came as the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee met to take testimony on the $70 million, 120-bed proposal being pushed by the state as a way to improve conditions for youthful prisoners in the city.
Opponents, such as 21-year-old activist Nicole Cheatom, told senators that the state should repurpose a women's prerelease unit closed three years ago instead of building a new facility. Retrofitting the prerelease center would be much less expensive and take significantly less time, she said.
"Spending almost $70 million on a new jail makes absolutely no sense in these hard economic times," Cheatom said, adding that "too many African-American youth are already being housed in jails in Baltimore City."
But Gary Maynard, secretary for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said modifying the vacant prerelease center is not a solution because it does not have the space or security infrastructure necessary to house the juveniles.
"We feel very strongly, based on my responsibility, that … we [should] build the facility," Maynard testified. His comments were the only ones made in support of the jail out of about 15 speakers.
Discussions on whether to proceed with plans for the facility are expected to continue through January, when the General Assembly returns to session.
The state is under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice to address by 2014 the issue of juvenile offenders housed with adults in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Plans for the youth facility have been in the works since 2006.
Advocates of the new youth jail, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, have characterized the conditions inside the city detention center as unsuitable. A July investigation by The Baltimore Sun revealed complaints about oversight at the center, which advocates say endangers the youthful detainees. State officials said at the time they were investigating some of the claims, but denied that the conditions were unsafe.
The General Assembly has provided $14 million for the planning, design and site preparation of the youth jail, Maynard said. The state has also set aside about $17 million for the first phase of construction, he said.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young told the senators in written comments that the council wants the money planned for the jail to be used on other initiatives, such as rehabilitation of recreation centers, equipment for trade apprenticeships and improvements to schools.
The council adopted a resolution in February that calls on the state to address public safety in a "more effective and fiscally responsible way."
"I believe it is our duty, not only as legislators, but human beings, to advocate for the vital financial resources and supports necessary to prepare our young people for the economy facing them," Young wrote in prepared remarks. "We must and we can give them the opportunities for greatness that they deserve. Please do what you can to prevent this tragedy. Divert attention and our precious financial resources to efforts to grow our children's minds, hearts and skills instead of growing more jails."
Earlier Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that she wants to have further conversations with the governor about juvenile justice.
"You can protest against the jail, but it doesn't solve the larger problem of: How do we prevent young people from getting involved in the juvenile justice system?" she said. "You can build a million jails. It's making sure they don't get filled up."
Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said that if the testimony Wednesday wasn't enough to convince the senators to pull funding for the new jail, opponents of the project will push for a legislative moratorium on its construction and file litigation, if necessary.
Carter, chairwoman of the House juvenile law subcommittee, said she is crafting legislation that would bar law enforcement from charging youth as adults, unless a judge decides to send the juvenile to the adult system.
She reaffirmed her commitment to fight the jail at a protest outside the State House before the Senate hearing.
Building the jail is the wrong solution, she said.
"It shows a disconnect between the executive branch, the legislative leadership and the people," Carter said.
About 50 protesters, including Baltimore high school students and Morgan State University undergraduates, gathered for the protest. Among them was the Rev. Heber M. Brown III of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore.
Brown said the proposed jail would perpetuate institutional racism. He questioned the state's support for the construction instead of further investments in education and recreational centers, especially when the rate of juvenile crime has decreased in recent times.
"People in Baltimore are saying, 'We don't want this,' but people in Annapolis are saying, 'We're going to do it anyway.' How is this moving Maryland forward, when you're locking up black children?" Brown said. "Today, we make a demand. We testified enough. We begged enough. We pleaded enough."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.