A tour of the new Youth Detention Center in Baltimore. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
After community resistance stifled past plans, juveniles charged as adults in Baltimore will be held in a new $35 million detention center that state corrections officials say is better equipped to rehabilitate them.
"We intend to use this facility to help change the lives of our troubled youth," Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen T. Moyer said Friday during a media tour of the 60,537-square-foot, two-story Youth Detention Center at 926 Greenmount Ave.
He said the facility provides an "opportunity to get them back on the right side of the criminal justice system where they can be productive citizens in the city and not come back to this facility."
State officials on Wednesday approved plans to build a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house teenagers charged as adults, a step in resolving years of concern about the city's practice of housing young defendants alongside adults.
The detention center's opening comes as the number of youths charged as adults and held at such facilities has been dropping. While the new facility can house up to 60 youths — 50 males and 10 females — the city typically houses fewer than 15 on an average day, according to corrections department spokesman Gerry Shields. In fact, the average daily population has dropped from 44 in fiscal year 2013 to nine this past fiscal year, according to Moyer's agency.
Many youth advocates and community leaders opposed spending money on a youth jail, urging the funds be directed to services like youth centers and summer jobs programs.
Melanie Shapiro, director of juvenile justice policy for the Office of the Public Defender, said the money could have been better spent helping to prevent young people from getting in trouble.
"It's so much money that could have been spent in the community to meet kids' needs, to prevent them from coming into the court system entirely," she said.
The public defender's office has been pushing to have all juveniles charged with a crime start in the juvenile system, rather than immediately be charged as adults for more serious crimes. Currently, public defenders and other attorneys have to request waiver hearings to try to get their young clients' cases moved to juvenile court, which typically has more lenient sentencing and more opportunities for rehabilitation.
"The concern is that we are investing money in jails," she said, while some other states are raising the age at which juveniles can be charged as adults. Vermont, for example, has raised the age at which defendants will be adjudicated in juvenile court to 21.
"We hope that is the direction our state will go," Shapiro said.
With dozens of beds open at the existing Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, a key lawmaker on Tuesday said the state of Maryland should reexaminer whether it needs to build a new $30 million youth jail.
Juveniles charged as adults in the city are currently housed at the Wyatt Building inside the sprawling Baltimore detention complex. Juveniles currently being held pending trial will be moved to the new facility by the end of the month, officials said.
Warden Kathleen Landerkin led a tour through the facility Friday morning as workers passed by carrying ladders and tools. Already, officers were seated behind computers at the entrance.
At the new facility, the youths will have individual cells, a gymnasium for exercise, and access to medical, dental and behavioral health treatment.
The first floor has an infirmary and housing for young women. Several cells surround a common area with tables with checker boards painted on the top. The housing area for males has two stories of rooms that overlook a common area with bright blue plastic chairs and a few rocking chairs.
Classrooms equipped with computers will replace three dilapidated portable trailers, Moyer said. The facility will also provide visiting room space where teens can interact with their families. Other areas are designated for services such as addiction awareness, conflict resolution and other programs.
Moyer said much of the center's cost was for education and medical facilities.
The new center will be more secure, with better sightlines and cameras to monitor the youths, he said. No adults will be housed in the center, alleviating a current problem of keeping the two groups separated.
Michael R. Resnick, commissioner of Pretrial Detention & Services in Baltimore, said the overall number of pretrial inmates in Baltimore has increased slightly in the past year. He anticipates the numbers of juveniles awaiting trial in adult court will go up as well.
"We have the space so we can adequately manage the population," he said.
About 100 correctional officers will work across three shifts in the new facility, Landerkin said. About 15 additional personnel will move to the new facility to teach or provide other services.
A new youth jail was proposed in 2007 during Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration, which planned to spend $100 million on a 230-bed facility. At that time, the city had a daily average of 92 juveniles locked up in adult jails. But the plan was criticized by juvenile advocates. Plans were later downsized to a $70 million facility, but continued to be faulted, causing the state to once again scrap the proposal.
In March 2015, the U.S. Justice Department warned that the state was violating the law by housing youth offenders in the general population at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center. Two months later, the state's Board of Public Works unanimously approved a plan for a $30 million, 60-bed facility.
An additional $5 million was spent on design, Shields said.
Baltimore Pastor Jamal H. Bryant has strongly opposed the new jail, and led a protest that blocked traffic for more than an hour on Interstate 395 south of downtown shortly after the plans were approvedin 2015. He promised the protest would be the first of "10 biblical plagues" if the state did not reverse its plans for the facility.
"I think it's going to be a monument to our failure. Now, two-and-a half-years after Freddie Gray, we point to this as a black eye," Bryant said in an interview Thursday.
Funding should instead go to uplifting youth through recreation centers, schools or local universities, Bryant said. "We can think of other areas where you can put that money. It's painful that you would put that much money in a prison system."
While many opposed building a new youth jail, others saw a need to safely house youths charged with violent crimes, including assault, carjacking and murder.
Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said there needed to be a facility that addressed the specific needs of young offenders "to make sure that once they are released, they have better choices to make."
He noted that some juvenile offenders are accused of committing "very serious crimes," contributing to the spike in violence across the city. These youths, he said, are in the greatest need of additional services that the old facility wasn't providing.
But Anderson agreed that the amount of money originally planned for the center "was crazy."
"It's not the best thing, but overall it provides a better service" to get young offenders back into mainstream society, she said.
Hathaway Ferebee, director of the Safe & Sound Campaign, a Baltimore youth advocacy organization that lobbied against the new facility, said she saw hope in the General Assembly's passage of the 2016 Justice Reinvestment Act, which allocated more funding for programs for recently released adults that offer opportunities to find work and address other concerns.
"The fact that the state worked on a new bill for reinvesting correctional dollars is very encouraging," she said. Investments like that, she said, will have a ripple effect on youth by aiding adult family members who have been incarcerated.