The U.S. Justice Department says the Baltimore City Detention Center continues to violate federal law in its treatment of youths charged as adults, failing to provide adequate programs and holding some in solitary confinement for "extraordinary" periods of time.
In its latest review, federal officials say the city detention center "is neither designed nor staffed to manage juveniles and has continuing significant deficiencies."
In recent years, the number of youths charged as adults has plummeted, and the majority of those are now being held in a youth detention facility instead of the adult jail. On a given day, officials say, the jail holds fewer than 20 youths.
But in its review, federal officials say those youths who continue to be held at the jail are being subjected to harsh conditions, and they recommend that all youths charged as adults be placed in the Juvenile Justice Center or "other age-appropriate placement alternatives."
On a site visit last August, Justice Department officials found teens who had been kept in seclusion for periods of 36, 42 and 53 days each. One was isolated for 143 days, the review says. The disciplinary process takes 80 days on average, and a quarter of those held in solitary confinement are ultimately cleared, according to the review.
In contrast, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Services said youths in that agency's custody average two hours in seclusion.
"The use of seclusion on juveniles is itself misguided," Christopher N. Cheng, a Justice Department attorney, wrote to the state prison system in the review. Such long-term separation could lead to "mental deterioration" and lead youths to harm themselves or worsen their behavioral problems, Cheng said.
The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which runs the city jail, did not address the findings regarding solitary confinement and discipline. In a statement, officials said they were working to improve staff training and programming.
"The Department takes these issues very seriously, and is committed to drastically improving the overall environment for juveniles charged as adults and committed to our care," the agency said in the statement, calling conditions for juveniles a "top priority" of new Secretary Stephen Moyer, who once held a high-ranking position in the Department of Juvenile Services.
James Johnston, a public defender who works with youths charged as adults in Baltimore, said his team was "deeply troubled that pretrial juvenile inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center continue to be housed in such poor condition," noting that they are being held before being found guilty or innocent.
"No child belongs in an adult jail or prison," Johnston said. "The best long-term solution is to remove children from Maryland's jails and prisons entirely."
The federal review comes eight years after the state entered into an agreement with the Justice Department to improve conditions at the jail. The agreement was extended in 2012 amid fresh questions about conditions for youth, and it has since expired. But the state continues to cooperate with federal oversight, federal officials said.
Their latest findings noted "continued improvements," but also "significant" continuing problems.
Among them: Youths are provided little access to drug treatment, anger management programs or even exercise, which officials described as a constitutional right.
They also said staff training falls short, failing to adequately cover adolescent development, trauma, and mental health and developmental disabilities.
And, wading into a debate that has been simmering for years, federal officials in their review are recommending that the state "take a much closer look" at its plan to build a new facility for juveniles.
A plan to build a $100 million facility for juveniles near the current site was reduced to $73 million and eventually scrapped amid protest, but the corrections department is still moving forward on a $30 million project to convert a former pre-release facility into a center that would house only juveniles.
The state says the new facility will have "ample program space, including better classroom facilities and an improved health services area, and will create a much better environment for teenagers."
But Cheng warned that "constructing another new juvenile detention center that largely mimics conditions at Baltimore's adult jail is inefficient and may very well result in the same ineffective, harsh conditions of confinement."
Rais Akbar, juvenile justice policy director for the Baltimore organization Advocates for Children and Youth, said the recommendation to place all youths charged as adults in a separate juvenile facility rather than in the adult jail "really rings true for me."
Authorities often say they need to seclude juveniles in adult facilities for safety reasons, Akbar said.
"It just begs the question of why they're in the adult facilities to begin with," he said.
By law, juvenile services officials note, youths charged with more serious offenses must be held at adult facilities. But legislation that has passed in the House of Delegates and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate would have all youths charged as adults held in a juvenile facility, pending a court hearing.
While fewer than 20 juveniles are generally held at the city detention center at any given time, 37 youths who are charged as adults were in the Juvenile Justice Center as of Friday, according to DJS spokesman Eric Solomon.
Eight years ago, there was a daily average of 100 youths in Baltimore who were charged and being held as adults.
The review does not discuss how jail staff determine which detainees to place in solitary confinement and does not explain what that segregation entails.
But nationally, there has been growing concern over the practice. In December, New York City stopped doing it.
In November, the U.S. Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence said that "nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement."
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Confined youths who spend extended periods isolated are among the most likely to attempt suicide, the task force report said.
In the Maryland juvenile system, Solomon said, seclusion is used as a "recuperating period," during which staff continue to observe the youths.
"If we see something that is escalating, we may pull them out of that situation before something gets worse and put them in seclusion," Solomon said. "They're in a room where they are cooling down."
Akbar, of Advocates for Children and Youth, also is troubled by the finding that nearly a quarter of youths held in seclusion are ultimately found not guilty.
"There's a lot in [the report] that needs to be taken seriously," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.