There's more to Baltimore than prisons

I once sat with a group of inner-city Baltimore kids, mostly 12-year-olds, who were being asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Police officer. Prison guard. Judge.


Those were the boys at least. The girls mostly seemed to aspire to cosmetology, which was depressing in its own way.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with being a cop or corrections officer or a judge. But the fact that no other jobs came to mind reflected how very narrow was their world: You were either the guy getting arrested, tried and jailed, or the guy doing the arresting, trying and jailing.


That is why it was good to see last week that the state had finally ditched its long-held plans for a new $70 million juvenile jail in Baltimore. As The Baltimore Sun's Yvonne Wenger reported, state officials proposed instead to channel more juveniles who are arrested to treatment programs, and renovate a smaller building to house violent young offenders.

While the state had been scaling back its plans for a new youth jail, the new proposal reflects a real shift in direction — and, importantly, in funding. Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget for the coming fiscal year, announced on the same day, removed funding for a new jail.

It was quite the victory for a group of activists who have been agitating against the proposed jail, and slowly building support for their cause. I have to say, I didn't think they had a chance, given how much planning and design money had already been allocated by the General Assembly. After a certain point, projects like that tend to fall under Newton's first law of motion, turning into that object that continues to move forward at a constant speed unless external force is applied.

Crime has been decreasing in Baltimore, as it has nationwide, giving legitimate rise to the question of whether we really need another jail. Perceptions tend to lag behind reality, though, and it'll take a while before we let up on the bunker mentality that has shaped policy for so long. (And no, crime rates aren't down because more bad guys are being locked up — in fact, incarceration rates have been declining as well.)

It's not yet time to start celebrating, or walking around any neighborhood at any time of day with your wallet sticking out of your pocket. But it's clear that what works is more targeted strategies, such as focusing on the most violent offenders, adult or juvenile, rather than just rounding everyone up and throwing them behind bars.

There are, without a doubt, violent kids who need to be kept away from the rest of us. But there are also just immature, messed-up kids, negligently if at all parented, who need better education, substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling more than incarceration — particularly if it puts them in proximity to grown-up criminals.

Can they be set straight? Maybe not all of them, but surely some of them, especially if they're identified early, assessed properly and monitored closely. That's why we have a separate juvenile justice system in the first place, to intervene and hopefully rehabilitate young offenders.

It's in everyone's best interest if they are kept away from older, more experienced criminals, for their own safety, for sure, but also for ours. The last thing we want is for them to come out worse than they went in.


They shouldn't be in the same facilities, but that is what happens in cases when juveniles are charged as adults and held in the city's adult detention center to await trial. That can take months, even if ultimately their cases are dismissed or sent back to juvenile court. Instead, the new proposal calls for youths charged as adults to be detained in a juvenile facility, except for those accused of the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder.