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Key lawmaker questions need for new youth jail in city

With dozens of beds open at Baltimore's juvenile detention center, a key lawmaker said Tuesday that the state should re-examine whether it needs to build a new $30 million jail for young offenders charged as adults.

"The number of juveniles detained is moving down," said Del. Keith Haynes, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee on public safety. "The question is: Do we really need another facility? It's something we might want to revisit."

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Fewer youths are detained at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center than any time in the past decade — the result of fewer arrests and quicker system of processing cases, officials said. The center is designed to hold youngsters charged as juveniles and handled by the juvenile justice system.

This year, an average of 52 juveniles per day have been held at the 144-bed facility while awaiting placement elsewhere — down from about 120 per day only three years ago.

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"We've driven down the number of kids here detained unnecessarily," said Sam J. Abed, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services."We also want to expedite their exit."

The shrinking number of youths held at the center has created space in the building to house other juveniles charged as adults with more serious crimes. They were previously held at the city's adult jail, the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Abed met with members of Haynes' subcommittee Tuesday to discuss conditions at the Juvenile Justice Center and provide a tour of the facility. The agency barred The Baltimore Sun from accompanying the delegates on the tour.

Abed said about 27 juveniles charged as adults were held in the juvenile facility per day in 2014. This year, that number has increased to about 33 per day.

Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the agency, said the youths charged as adults are housed there as a "courtesy" to the adult system and do not intermingle with those charged with less serious offenses.

"They do not interact at all with our regular DJS kids," he said in an email. "This includes education, recreation, dining and visitation."

In May, the three-member state Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, voted unanimously to approve plans for a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults. The project, developed during the administration of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, followed years of criticism about the practice of housing young city defendants alongside adults.

A 2007 legal agreement between the federal government and Maryland states that officials "shall continue to assure, to the extent reasonably possible, that juveniles are housed under conditions maintaining sight and sound separation from adults."

Hogan has since closed the men's Detention Center, moving inmates held there to other parts of the corrections complex in Baltimore. None of those detainees moved were sent to the Juvenile Justice Center, officials said.

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the administration remains supportive of a new youth jail for juveniles charged as adults that "will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreation areas and represents a vastly superior alternative."

He pointed out that state officials approved a scaled-down version of the new youth jail after reviewing the declining statistics.

The original design of the facility called for 180 beds. That has been reduced to 60 beds.

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"The state takes these issues very seriously, and the Hogan administration is committed to drastically improving the overall environment for juveniles charged as adults and committed to our care," Mayer said.

At the Juvenile Justice Center, Abed said the young people charged as adults have not proven more difficult to manage.

"They really have not been a behavior problem," he said. "The charge the kid has really doesn't give us an indication about their behavior. It's really their maturity level. Young kids — middle school kids — are much harder to deal with behaviorally."

Abed said the state has had to expand its educational program to serve the youths charged as adults — because they have longer stays while awaiting their hearings in adult court. That means a more challenging curriculum, he said.

"Managing their education has been more difficult," Abed said. "With a 15-day stay, there's not so much we can cover. With a 100-day stay, you can get into some things."

Haynes said afterward that the delegates toured the part of the facility where teaching takes place. It "looks like it's one of the smallest areas in the entire facility," he said.

"We want to make sure that wherever the youth fall along the spectrum, that they are receiving the highest level of education possible," he said. "Education is the key to turning around so many people's lives."

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the low numbers of youths held today could possibly increase in the future. He said wants to make sure the state isn't housing juveniles charged as adults with those charged with lesser crimes.

"I don't believe those two populations should be intermingled," he said. "If you do that, you're asking for trouble."

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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