Malik Smallwood lounged in front of Baltimore's Juvenile Justice Center, puffing on a cigarette and his recalling his teenage years spent in and out of the facility — he called it "kiddie camp."

Now 18, Smallwood said temptation loomed on the streets. Detention, in a way, was easier and saved him from that. Yet any attempts to rehabilitate him at the East Baltimore facility didn't do much good, he acknowledged. He had returned for a hearing on his latest juvenile charge.

Baltimore law enforcement officials and child advocates have long questioned the efficacy and ethics of locking up juveniles accused of breaking the law, arguing it can doom them to a life of crime. Behind the scenes, they have made a determined policy shift to release more juveniles, requiring some to check in daily with authorities and tracking others by GPS.

Over the past three years, those efforts have led to a turnaround, with about 50 percent fewer juveniles detained. Smallwood, for instance, was allowed to go home with a black box around his ankle that monitored his movements.

Some in Baltimore question the strategy and wonder whether it has returned troublemakers to city neighborhoods within hours of being arrested. But state officials, child advocates and Judge Robert B. Kershaw, who heads Baltimore's juvenile court, say they're pleased with the progress and some hope to further discourage juvenile detention.

In 2011, the juvenile detention center for boys was at its 120-bed capacity, and another 75 juveniles charged as adults were routinely held at Baltimore's adult jail, where they endured poor conditions and suffered injuries in fights. Today, an average of 89 are housed in juvenile detention, where there's now room for those charged as adults. An average of 16 boys now sleep at the adult jail each night.

Kershaw said in recent years he became convinced of the need to drive down juvenile detention numbers. He learned about neurological research that shows teenagers' brains haven't fully developed to avoid risky behavior and that periods of confinement can interrupt the developmental process.

"I sort of had an epiphany and thought, 'Oh my gosh, it doesn't work,'" he said. "It's destructive."

Still, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration wants a closer look at the state-run program, citing concerns heard at community meetings. Angela Johnese, a top mayoral top crime aide, said city officials don't necessarily oppose detaining fewer juveniles but want to see if tweaks are needed in the process. "Children need to know you can't engage in delinquent behavior and not have consequences," she said.

For two decades, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation has pushed its nationwide program aimed at limiting the detainment of children charged as juveniles.

Child advocates contend that many juveniles have been detained even though they did not pose a threat to the public or themselves, making them less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to commit crimes as adults. Their work is also aimed at reducing racial disparities in the juvenile system — more than 95 percent of those who enter it in Baltimore are black.

Cases handled in the juvenile courts tend to be for minor offenses. The most common charges are second-degree assault, drug possession or distribution and theft. More serious crimes such as robbery and gun offenses must be charged as adult crimes if the teenager is 16 or older, although the cases can be transferred to the juvenile system.

The Casey program is being run in 39 states and the District of Columbia, in both urban and rural areas. The model has been applied in Chicago, where the youth detention center was riddled with corruption, as well as in Dallas and San Francisco. The foundation reported those cities saw an average decline in the number of children detained of about 43 percent.

But even as other cities saw success with the program, Baltimore's efforts floundered and the number of juveniles detained remained stubbornly high.

For years, the agencies involved in the process could not agree on when a juvenile should be detained, and by 2010, the meetings had become "irrelevant," according to a presentation by Baltimore officials for a Casey Foundation conference earlier this year.

Then, starting in 2011, new leaders took over at the state Department of Juvenile Services, the court and the public defender's office, and they committed to making the program work.

At the same time, the overall crime rate dropped, as did juvenile arrests in the city. In 2009, almost 7,000 children were arrested or referred to the juvenile system. Last year that figure was less than 4,000.

Under the program, judges, public defenders and the juvenile services department as well as police and prosecutors have collaborated on a number of approaches to reduce juvenile detention levels.

At the beginning of a new case, officials have made increased use of a scoring system that ranks juveniles' risk to public safety and themselves based on criteria such as failures to show up for court, the seriousness of the allegations and judgments in the juvenile system. It spits out a number to help officials determine whether juveniles should be released or held.

Also, juveniles arrested for violating the rules of their release now have a hearing the next day. Those juveniles, who often spent weeks in jail before the policy change, are released in 94 percent of the cases.