The Maryland Public Defender on Friday called on state lawmakers who represent Baltimore County to help end the practice of putting children in the county’s adult jail in Towson, weeks after one of her employees accused the county of violating federal juvenile detention and education laws.
Director Natasha Dartigue and other members of the Maryland Public Defender’s Office briefed the Baltimore County legislative delegation Friday morning on allegations that staff in the jail’s intake unit confined children under 18 for 23 hours a day in rodent-infested cells that were prone to flooding. The children also allegedly were exposed to adult inmates in violation of state and federal law, she said, and struggled to access health care and adequate education.
She and other public defenders asked the delegation to advocate for the children and establish a memorandum of understanding between the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the county Department of Corrections to send children charged as adults who were ineligible to be transferred to juvenile court to be sent to the Baltimore Youth Detention Center instead of the Baltimore County Detention Center.
Deborah St. Jean, the director of the juvenile protection division for the public defender’s office, levied accusations about the treatment of juvenile inmates at the adult jail in a March 6 letter she sent to Baltimore County officials, including corrections director Walt Pesterfield, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.
The public defender’s Friday briefing came two weeks after Pesterfield addressed the delegation, where he pledged to complete an investigation within 30 days and said he had identified some “areas for improvement,” but did not offer specific details.
Pesterfield told four Baltimore County councilmembers in a private meeting later that day that some of the accusations were untrue or only partially true. A portion of that meeting violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act because there was a quorum of councilmembers, County Attorney James Benjamin said.
St. Jean, Dartigue, and Baltimore County public defender Michelle Kim reiterated Friday that their clients reported “deplorable and unsafe conditions” at the jail, and pointed out that the previous jail director said in a 2019 affidavit that the Towson facility was not fit to house minors.
One child said he refused to enter his assigned cell because it was covered in feces, Kim said. Another child who reported being in mental distress was taken to the “butt-naked room,” a colloquialism she used for a room where inmates who report suicidal ideations are held in solitude, stripped of their clothing, including underwear, and sleep with a plastic blanket on the floor until they’re cleared to return to living with other people, she said.
Other kids said they were given rare opportunities to shower, had to sleep in dirty cells with clogged toilets, and were only allowed to change clothes once a week.
“Fixing the situation is not what we’re looking for,” Kim said. “The overwhelming theme of what we’re presenting here today is that these children should not be stepping foot into this facility.”
The jail currently houses six minors who are detained pretrial on charges like murder, assault and armed robbery, down from 12 earlier this month, Pesterfield said Thursday. Under a 2015 law, children who are automatically charged as adults and deemed “transfer eligible” are held pretrial by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services instead of in adult jails.
“Baltimore County has more children in adult jails than any major jurisdiction,” Kim said. “We know this because we charge more kids as adults here [and in] Baltimore City, but Baltimore City does not place children in adult jail.”
Judges can order youth to adult jails if being placed in a juvenile facility would pose a risk to the child or others, or if the Department of Juvenile Services decides there isn’t adequate capacity in a youth facility. Prosecutors can ask judges to place juveniles charged as adults in adult jails.
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In her letter, St. Jean asked for the children whom her office represents to be transferred to other youth facilities.
“It seems to me the process of determining where these young people go is broken,” said Democratic Del. Norman Scott Philips.
Through tears, Del. Cheryl Pasteur called the situation “unconscionable” and demanded action.
“Something bad is happening to [the children] now,” she said. “We can’t just keep talking about this. We have to figure out what to do as a delegation now.”
Dartigue also asked the delegation to immediately form a taskforce to consider moving the children to other facilities and establish a workgroup to monitor child inmates’ conditions.
In the long term, she asked for lawmakers to support passing the Youth Equity and Safety Act, which would end the practice of charging children accused of committing certain crimes as adults. Those bills, Senate Bill 93 and House Bill 96, have not yet been voted out of their respective committees.
“As members of the Baltimore County delegation, you have an absolute duty to keep these children safe,” Dartigue said.