Despite objections from youth advocates and some city lawmakers, momentum is building in the State House to construct a new 120-bed jail in Baltimore for youths who are charged as adults.
Debate over the proposed jail has swirled in Baltimore and the halls of Annapolis since 2010, with state officials demanding more space for imprisoned youths and advocates saying the resources would be better spent on education and prevention.
"I think that it has been studied enough," said Del. Adrienne A. Jones, after a House Capital Budget Subcommittee briefing on the project Wednesday morning. "I believe the facility will be built."
The jail is intended for "youths that are doing adult crimes" — the worst of the worst she stressed. "You can't sugarcoat that."
Maryland's legislature has sent mixed signals — granting preliminary approval for the project in 2006 but then stalling it for the past two years, most recently requesting a report on using an existing building for the jail. The report's results — that the alternate site would not work — were presented Wednesday morning to the Annapolis budget panel.
Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the panel wanted to be sure it had examined every possible alternative before moving forward with the jail.
"This is a decision situation in government where you have to balance what you really want to do — ensure that kids don't get in trouble — with the fact that you've got kids out there who are charged with really serious crimes," Guzzone said.
Maryland is under a long-standing federal agreement to improve conditions for young people charged as adults. Though placed in the adult system, they must be separated from adult prisoners and require special programming and education services.
The Baltimore Sun reported last month that there have been complaints about assaults, lax oversight by correction officers and stifling heat in the existing facility. One 16-year-old prisoner reported losing a tooth in a fight and then having to administer first aid on himself. Others said they slept on the floor during a three-day power outage.
Shortly after the article appeared, the prisoners were moved temporarily to a new location — a former drug treatment center — that had air-conditioning.
The new jail was initially proposed as a $100 million, 180-bed facility. Plans have since been scaled down to a $70 million, 120-bed jail.
Del. Barbara Robinson, a Baltimore Democrat, attended Wednesday's hearing and spoke passionately against the project, saying the proposed jail is "wrong on so many levels."
"Why can't we look at putting some of that money into training individuals so there wouldn't be a need for that facility?" asked Robinson, as advocates in the audience nodded in approval.
Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Western Maryland Republican, objected to the cost. "Why do they have to have such an elaborate, expensive facility?" he asked.
A total of 43 youths who have been charged as adults are now locked up in the Baltimore City Detention Center. Charges include murder, rape, assault, handgun violations and robbery with a deadly weapon.
Some advocates have suggested it would be more cost effective if all youths — whether charged as adults or juveniles — were placed with the state's Department of Juvenile Services. Those advocates are also pushing for wholesale juvenile justice reform, which they believe would reduce the overall number of children being imprisoned.
But officials from DJS said Wednesday that under the current system, they lack the space to care for youths charged with the more serious crimes, and would therefore also need to construct an additional building.
A senate committee is set to have another hearing in October.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.