Juvenile center home to despair

The Baltimore Sun

The pristine new $50 million building on Gay Street was envisioned as an antidote to the city's disorganized juvenile justice system. Just five years later, the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center is widely viewed as a failure - a building rife with violence and in need of radical transformation.

State Public Defender Nancy S. Forster says, "The whole thing ought to be torn down and rebuilt." State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a juvenile justice reform advocate, calls it a "poorly configured monstrosity." And Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore identifies it as the "most perplexing and challenging" juvenile facility in the state.

It is the 144-bed detention wing of the complex, which also includes courtrooms and child welfare offices, that has proved to be the building's albatross. Juvenile advocates call it a Supermax prison for teenage boys, a facility at odds with the rehabilitative mission of juvenile services.

Designed to house youngsters for 30 to 45 days as they await trial, in recent years it has become a warehouse for juvenile delinquents who stay for months awaiting placement at more appropriate places. That stagnation, combined with the what some call an inappropriate layout, persistent staffing problems and the influx of street-hardened youths, can push the facility beyond its capacity and turn it into a powder keg.

Allegations of violence - group disturbances and youths assaulting one another and workers - shot up 46 percent in the first four months of this year, compared with the same period last year. This year, 304 youths have been charged with new crimes while at the justice center, according to the Maryland State Police, which handles investigations there.

Out of control

Meanwhile, teachers there complained in March that the staff had "lost control" of the youths. A report released Tuesday by the state's independent juvenile justice monitor concludes that "physical conditions and levels of violence at this facility continue to be of great concern and appear to be worsening rather than improving."

Last month, a residential adviser trainee was knocked out when six youths hurled chairs at him; he needed a neck brace and nine stitches to the back of his head. In December, a youth playing cards was jumped by other juveniles; he was kicked and stomped so badly that his skull was fractured and his jaw dislocated.

Both attacks were so serious that the accused assailants were charged as adults - something that juvenile advocates say shows just how out of control the justice center has become.

"When a juvenile facility becomes a place where adult charges are generated, that is a full-scale indictment," said Stephen Bergman, supervising attorney in the state public defender's juvenile protection office. "There cannot be a bigger failure of the system than that."

DeVore says that justice center reform is a top priority. Late last year, he added 48 positions there, bringing its number of DJS workers to 233. Those employees have received new training in violence de-escalation. To keep the youths busy and out of trouble, DeVore launched mentoring and after-school programs, such as drumming and chess.

The secretary acknowledges, however, that the only real solution is to sharply decrease the justice center's population; his goal is a cap of 100 youths. He believes that will begin happening in the coming months as community detention alternatives become available, and even more so in the coming years as four planned new facilities are constructed.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who brought DeVore to Maryland from Connecticut last year, said he was "never under any illusion that progress would be something to happen overnight."

But juvenile advocates say the youths and workers inside can't wait any longer. Some want the justice center's capacity slashed to 70 or lower - and right away.

"The justice center has never worked appropriately," Forster said. "It's a bleak place that breeds hopelessness."

An architectural assessment of the 95,000-square-foot detention area, commissioned last year by DeVore, indicates that it "is overcrowded in every department" and, according to national standards, should be 50 percent larger.

Students must receive about six hours of education per weekday, but there are just six classrooms, each of which can accommodate 12 students.

Hallways are barely wide enough for three people standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The cafeteria holds 24 youths. Outdoor recreation is limited to two diamond-shaped concrete courtyards.

DeVore has helped build about 10 juvenile facilities across the country. When he toured the justice center after becoming secretary last year, he said he was struck by its "nightmarish design."

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, head of juvenile court during the development of the justice center, said, "A lot of consideration and good intention went into that building." But, he added, "It really ended up being much more of a hard jail than we wanted it to be."

Talk of a building that would centralize services for the city's troubled youths began in 1993, according to memos about the project. The idea was born out of a disorganized system in which city youths were detained at an outdated facility in Prince George's County and juvenile court was packed into the ground level of the adult Circuit Courthouse. By April 1996, during the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the state, with input from juvenile and social services officials, had assembled a thick packet of plans for the justice center. Baltimore-based architecture firm RTKL Associates won the design contract, and Poole and Kent won the construction contract. Both appeared to follow the state's guidelines on what the facility was to include.

Running two years late and about $10 million over its initial design and construction budget, the justice center opened to juveniles in October 2003. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. called it "an impressive facility" when he toured it six months earlier.

In some important ways, the building fulfilled its mission, including bringing many youth services under one roof. But problems in the detention wing emerged almost immediately.

Poor sight lines made it necessary to have more DJS workers than at other facilities, officials said. Assistant Superintendent Antoinette McLeod, who has worked there since the doors opened, said, "From the very beginning, it wasn't staffed properly."

The first superintendent, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, began firing off memos about needing twice as many employees as she had. No one responded, she said, so she quit in June 2004.

Today, staffing remains an issue, despite the addition of 48 positions. Some DJS workers, who did not want to give their names for fear they would be fired, said they are routinely forced to work overtime to fill shifts.

Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents about half of juvenile services employees, said the justice center is "grossly under-resourced."

Outside agencies have been documenting problems in the facility for years. A report in 2004 by the Maryland attorney general's juvenile justice monitor documented youths attacking each other and workers, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice questioned whether the facility was meeting constitutional requirements for juvenile confinement. Last May, DeVore asked that the Justice Department monitor the justice center under an existing agreement for two other Maryland facilities.

Two juvenile justice monitor reports this year have portrayed the facility as chaotic. Its report last week noted that "the high level of violence" was an "intransigent and dangerous problem."

Juvenile prosecutors say they believe another contributing factor might be a "criminal maturing" of youths over the years. Comparing last month with April 2007, there was a 32 percent increase in the number of detained juveniles with felony charges.

Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Rallo told a state Senate committee in March about signs of gang activity at the justice center, including youths "flagging" their colors, scratching gang graffiti in the hallways and bringing their "crew" to court with them. She was testifying in favor of a bill that would have made it easier to prosecute young gang members as adults.

Gang signs

On several visits this month to the justice center, youths could be seen with gang insignia tattoos on their arms. Some assaults, including the brutal stomping in December, have been tied to gang activity.

Advocates also worry that behavior on the inside will translate to violence on the outside.

"If they're going to act like that while under supervision, what do you think they're going to do out there?" asked Dean C. Jones, a retired Maryland state trooper and volunteer at the justice center until late last year. He said the justice center's environment turns troubled teens into hardened criminals and warns that, under those conditions, "The kids in there will bring Baltimore City to its knees."

In an interview Monday afternoon, two 17-year-olds tried to explain what it was like to live at the justice center. The superintendent and a DJS spokeswoman were in the room, and the youths are not being identified because The Sun does not typically name juveniles charged with crimes.

"You see a lot of people fighting," said one teen, who had been there for four months. "It's up to you and how you act. You're on the unit with a lot of different personalities, and you can't really control them."

Both 17-year-olds were "pending placement," meaning they have been found "responsible," the juvenile equivalent of guilty, and are awaiting transfer to a secure treatment facility.

Maryland has just one such facility, the Victor Cullen Academy in Western Maryland, and it can house up to 48 youths. Many times, youths are sent out of state to receive treatment, and placing them can take months. Meanwhile, they don't receive the treatment they have been ordered to get, because that's not what the justice center was designed to do.

"We would have planned it totally differently if we had known it would come to be used as a pending placement facility," Welch said.

DeVore said he has reduced the average length of stay for the pending-placement youths. When he arrived, he said, there were juveniles who had been at the justice center for more than one year. Now, he said, the average length of stay has dropped to 49 days.

Yet some youths linger; one interviewed March 31 by a juvenile justice monitor had been at the facility for more than nine months. On Friday, 48 of the 125 youths there were pending placement. The longest-serving boy there this week had been there 204 days by the time he left Thursday.

Marlana Valdez, the state's juvenile justice monitor, recommended a population cap of 48 in her latest report. She wrote that pending-placement youths should immediately be moved to larger, more treatment-based facilities, such as the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore County. DeVore said he is not willing to do that, noting that Hickey, which was a troubled facility when he arrived, "has been doing extraordinarily well."

Instead, DeVore said he hopes to begin thinning the justice center's population, by as much as 20 percent, by releasing more youths who are awaiting trial. To do that safely, he said, he is using a new "risk-assessment instrument" developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

A solution to the pending-placement problem could be years away. The capital improvement plan for the DJS calls for four, 48-bed secure facilities, including one in Baltimore.

Meantime, DeVore is trying to keep the kids busy from sunup to sundown. For the first time since the justice center opened, Assistant Superintendent Mcleod said, the youths have after-school activities. On Monday afternoon, David "Pawn Master" McDuffie played chess with five boys at a time - simultaneously. Four rounds later, he was still undefeated, but, he said, actually they won, because "they got the lesson."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Recent violence

Dec. 10: A boy playing cards is jumped by two boys who kick and stomp him so badly that his skull is fractured and his jaw broken.

Dec. 31: A New Year's Eve melee involving 24 juveniles results in assaults, broken furniture and the police and fire departments being called.

March 4: Education staff member suffers a bruised rib when a desk thrown by a juvenile strikes her chest.

April 17: Residential adviser trainee receives a neck brace and 14 staples to his head after being hit with a chair during a six-youth assault on him.

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Related coverage at baltimoresun.com/juvenile

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