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.
Finally, the state sped up the process for moving children who were found delinquent — the equivalent of a conviction in the criminal system — from the detention center to a treatment facility.
Joseph W. Cleary, chief of staff for the Department of Juvenile Services, summed up the state's approach: "Only use detention when you really, really have to."
The program is also being applied in cases of juveniles who are girls, but those numbers are much smaller — an average of nine from Baltimore are held in two state facilities.
A former corporate litigator, Kershaw talked enthusiastically about his work as he sat in his chambers atop the juvenile justice facility, which combines courtrooms, offices and the detention center for boys.
A few blocks south of the sprawling adult detention complex next to the Jones Falls Expressway, the juvenile facility on North Gay Street has the look of a jail. Behind 15-foot walls sit a cluster of squat buildings with narrow windows.
Kershaw said the stakes in the juvenile system are high. Get it right and a child's life can be set back on track, he said, but failing to help can leave that child facing an early death on Baltimore's violent streets.
The second thought broke Kershaw's concentration, and he stared out a window rapping his fingers on the arms of his chair, describing how you can tell a person has died from a court file: The death certificate is printed on legal-sized paper and conspicuously sticks out.
The model has not been without controversy, though. A report by a crime victims' group in Oregon concluded that implementing the Casey approach led to officials in Portland taking too soft an approach on juvenile crime and failing to take into account the effect of juvenile crime on victims. When the report came out in 2008, authorities stood by their work, saying it drove down recidivism.
Nate Balis, the foundation's head of juvenile justice, noted that widespread use of the model continued even after that dust-up, an indication that it does not harm public safety. "We would never be able to do [this] in so many jurisdictions ... if public safety results were poor," he said.
Changes in Baltimore also have not come without angst.
The mayor's office wants a role in setting policy on who gets released, citing concerns from community associations and crime victims that teenagers are being arrested only to be released.
Mike Hilliard, a retired Baltimore police major who advises community groups, said he often hears complaints about persistent issues with the same juveniles.
"The problem is there are habitual offenders who are as young as 14 years old, who don't respond to what the system has to offer, and if you consistently re-release them, they just do it again," he said.
The state juvenile department has not been tracking the re-arrest rates for children who are released while their cases move forward — a useful metric for determining whether the decrease in detention has come at a cost to public safety.
Cleary is confident that the additional releases have not driven up crime, pointing to continually declining arrest numbers. But he said the department is working on compiling re-arrest statistics.
Already, disagreements have been cropping up in strategy meetings under the Casey Foundation program, according to participants, potentially making it more difficult to find compromises needed to further decrease the number of juveniles detained.
Elizabeth Embry, a deputy state's attorney, acknowledged that there were areas of disagreement, particularly over when a warrant should be issued for a juvenile who has failed to check in or attend hearings while on release.
"It's inevitable that there's areas that we disagree because we have a focus on public safety," Embry said.
As juvenile detention has declined, state officials abandoned plans last year to build a new youth jail for those accused of adult crimes, citing the empty beds available at the juvenile detention center. Officials decided they could hold most juveniles charged as adults there until a judge rules whether their cases should be transferred to the juvenile courts.
The effects of even a short time in detention can be dire, child advocates say.
Brains do not fully emerge from adolescence until the mid-20s, according a study conducted for the U.S. Justice Department, and until that time decision-making functions continue to develop, leading to riskier — and potentially illegal — behavior. The researchers concluded that most teens learn to eschew crime in a supportive atmosphere that gives them a chance to make decisions for themselves.
But periods of confinement can interrupt the developmental process, making it harder for a child to successfully enter adulthood, the researchers found, and detention might hurt long-term efforts to reduce recidivism.
While juvenile lockup offers more services than the Baltimore City Detention Center for adults, it is still a jail, said Melanie Shapiro, head of the city public defender's juvenile team.
"It's the total deprivation of liberty," Shapiro said, recalling one young boy who was cuffed, shackled and crying in court at the prospect of having to go back there.
For Smallwood, the teenager who has been in and out of juvenile detention, the experience has been less intimidating. In fact, he contends, "It's not that hard in there."
Smallwood recently spent time in the adult jail after his first adult arrest — a drug charge. His father didn't pay his $7,500 bail immediately, hoping to teach him a lesson, and Smallwood described being scared in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Now he has ambitions to straighten out his life and open a business — as a bail bondsman.
"You're always going to make money," he said. "People are always going to be locked up, you feel me?"
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