A victory for Baltimore's youth

The O'Malley administration's decision to scrap its plans to build a $70 million youth jail in Baltimore is a major win for the city and its youth. It is made possible both by the significant successes of recent years in reducing violent crime and by a renewed effort on the part of the Department of Juvenile Services to place troubled youth in more appropriate settings, and it will end the deplorable practice of housing juveniles charges as adults in an adult jail. It is a credit to the advocates who have been fighting against the plan, and it deserves the legislature's support.

The problem of how to handle youths charged as adults in Baltimore is a long-standing one. The state has been under orders from the U.S. Department of Justice to improve conditions for youth housed at the Baltimore City Detention Center, but they have complained in recent months of being victims of beatings and intimidation by other youths, sometimes while correctional staff looked on. The facility lacks air conditioning and, more importantly, it is not set up to provide the kind of educational and social services that young offenders need.

The O'Malley administration's original plan was to build a new, $100 million, 180-bed jail to house them. Advocates balked, saying the focus should be on reducing the population of youths charged as adults and arguing that the facility was in any event far too large for the need. The governor agreed to an outside study. Released in 2011, it found a need for fewer beds and included recommendations for driving the size down even more. Still, the governor proposed a $70 million, 120-bed facility.

But several important things have happened since then. Overall violent crime rates in Baltimore, and particularly violent crimes among juveniles, have steadily declined. What has caused that improvement is up for debate, but local, state and federal law enforcement officials say they are now coordinating their efforts much better than before, and they believe that has made a significant difference. Where the Baltimore City Detention Center once held 130 youths awaiting trial, that population is now down to 49.

Meanwhile, the Department of Juvenile Services has been more aggressively pursuing strategies long preached by youth advocates for reducing the population in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. In addition to benefiting from overall lower crime rates, officials there have sought opportunities to provide services for youth in the community, and they have had greater success in placing others in secure treatment facilities. The center, which at one point routinely exceeded its capacity of 120 boys, now houses just 56.

What Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of public safety and correctional services, and Sam Abed, the secretary of juvenile services, plan to do is this: Youths who are charged as adults but with crimes that could allow them to be transferred back to the juvenile courts system will be held at the Juvenile Justice Center. Youths whose cases must be tried in adult court — generally, those charged with serious, violent crimes — will stay in the adult system. But Mr. Maynard, thanks to several other efficiencies he has found elsewhere, will be able to free up what is now a pre-release center in Baltimore. The plan is to renovate that facility, bring it up to the standards expected of a juvenile lockup (classrooms, indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, air conditioning, individual cells) and house youths awaiting trial in the adult system there.

It makes good financial sense; the renovations to the pre-release center will likely cost in the neighborhood of $30 million, and that smaller facility will be cheaper to run than a new, 120-bed jail. It also should serve Baltimore's troubled youths better. The corrections staff in the newly renovated facility will be trained to handle juveniles, and the all of the youths will be kept completely segregated from adult inmates.

The keys to making this plan work are for the legislature to approve a switch in its capital funding from the new jail to the renovations and for DJS to find a site in Baltimore for a new juvenile treatment facility. That has been a priority for the department for years as part of its push to provide better services for youths who have been found delinquent in the juvenile courts — the equivalent of a guilty verdict — and to do so in small (48 beds or less) facilities in or near the communities where the youths live. Now it needs to happen. At current population levels the administration's plan works, but if crime increases in the future it won't, unless DJS has a new Baltimore treatment center to augment its current, very small facility.

Finding a location for such a facility is not an insurmountable problem; the plan to close dozens of city schools should create a number of sites that have the kind of acreage DJS needs. The hard part may be gaining the acceptance of the community surrounding whatever site the department selects. But city residents need to rally behind this plan. For Baltimore's most troubled youths, it may be their best shot.

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