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A better future, not a better jail

Sun reporter Justin Fenton's recent coverage of the flagrantly inhumane conditions for the youth at the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC) is a call to action.

To find a lasting remedy for this horrific institutional failure, however, we must be clear about its causes. We otherwise risk devoting our energy and resources to a solution that would prove inadequate. Currently the state is debating whether to build a new jail for youth being charged as adults who are held in BCDC. State funding is already approved in the amount of $104 million for building and $13 million to be spent each year to run it.

If building a new jail is proposed as a solution, the implication is that lack of space to hold violent youth until their cases have been heard is the problem. Yet fewer than 15 percent of youth awaiting hearings have been charged with a violent crime. Furthermore, a study of our juvenile justice system, commissioned by the governor from the authoritative National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), concludes that a new jail is not necessary: The NCCD points out that there would be ample space to house youth charged as adults if the state followed the study's recommendations to expand effective community based alternatives and institute more efficient management policies.

So why hasn't the state embraced the NCCD report, reallocated the reserved funds to rectify the federal violation and invested the balance of funds preparing our youth to be responsible citizens rather than prisoners?

The answer is hidden in plain sight. Look at the statistics: In the state of Maryland, African-Americans are 34 percent of the youth population but make up 80 percent of the youth in detention. In Baltimore City, African-Americans comprise 75 percent of the youth population and 99 percent of youth in detention.

These conditions are not treated as a social crisis because of our history. We began as a slave society. In any such society, absolute control of the enslaved was achieved through extremes of violence and the threat of death. Age was certainly no shield — if anything, an enslaved young boy was set upon the most fiercely.

Even after America outlawed slavery, the control and oppression of people who had been enslaved, and of their descendants, remained for years an explicit goal of city and state police forces. Arbitrary arrest, arbitrary lengths of imprisonment, beatings and maiming and unexplained death were treatment sanctioned by tradition. There has been far less change in this regard than we like to admit. Though many are deeply distressed by Mr. Fenton's report, fewer are genuinely surprised by it.

We are not to blame for what happened 300 or 100 or 50 years ago. But in Maryland, right now, we have the opportunity to lead the country away from this degraded history. The structure that is our legacy from those times — the laws, policies, customs and unspoken agreements — can be dismantled. We do not have to brutalize, marginalize, stigmatize and exclude young people from impoverished neighborhoods who have barely begun their lives.

The research conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency goes into detail describing alternatives to building a new youth jail. It demonstrates that these alternatives would "maintain public safety, improve outcomes for youth in the justice system and cost less money."

So let us direct our concern and compassion, not to give African-American young people a better jail to look forward to living in, but rather to offer them equal and affirmative opportunities to succeed.

Karen Helm is a member of the board of the Baltimore Ethical Society. Her email is karenrhelm@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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