With the end of the fiscal year, the Baltimore City Jail becomes a state-run facility known as the Baltimore City Pretrial Detention Center. At least initially, the transfer is largely a financial wash for the city: In exchange for $38 million less in police aid, the state takes over an institution with a budget of about the same amount. But in future years, the savings could be more substantial, especially considering the capital investments that are urgently needed to make the institution a safe and smooth operation.
With health-care crises, perpetual overcrowding and the constant need for more operating funds, Baltimoreans have been accustomed to bad news from the jail. But in fairness to Commissioner Barbara Bostick and her staff, running a jail on a tight budget that must accommodate almost 3,000 inmates housed in deteriorating facilities watched over by the federal courts may be an impossible task. Imagine, for instance, serving 10,000 meals a day to inmates and staff with malfunctioning dishwashers in facilities plagued by leaks and other problems. Somehow it gets done.
There have been some pieces of good news. The jail's beleaguered medical system was accredited last October by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care. No conditions were attached to the accreditation -- a first for the city jail and a rare occurrence for any of the country's penal institutions. Moreover, it looks now as if the jail will finish the year within its budget for the first time in recent memory.
By taking over the jail, the state takes on one of the more thankless jobs in government; taxpayers like to demand better crime control, but they don't like to hear about the money it takes to lock people up. Given tight budgets at all levels, certainly the state is better equipped than the city to marshal the resources needed to make the jail a safe and efficient institution.
In the long run, what may be the biggest benefit for the city is the state's plan to create an innovative central booking facility that will relieve the police department of much of the burden of holding and charging people who have been arrested. That will free up more officers for duty that is more productive than simply spending their time as turnkeys in the district headquarters.