Maryland spent nearly $6 million in 2017-2018 to fortify and upgrade a Western Maryland youth detention center even as the state’s own experts said such remote facilities harm young people, don’t slow crime and waste taxpayer money, a review of state records and interviews with officials show.
Two years later, the newly named Garrett Children’s Center sits empty, temporarily shut down in November after the one remaining youth was transferred to another site.
The facility and two others that closed earlier this year are at the heart of a larger debate as a legislative work group has recommended that the state move toward a structure of probation services closer to youth offenders’ hometowns, something other states have done in recent years with success in reducing recidivism.
“New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia have been closing their youth prisons over the last decade, and Maryland is simply a generation behind,” said Jennifer Egan, chief attorney of the Public Defender’s Office juvenile division.
In October, a legislative work group recommended the state pass legislation to adopt a system that focuses more on providing probation resources closer to youth offenders’ homes. The Juvenile Justice Reform Council, as it is called, included Egan and Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed.
Statistics from Abed’s department show the majority of detained youths come from the Baltimore-Washington corridor, meaning those in rural detention centers are moved hours away from their families and friends to complete programs in isolation.
Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon defended the expenditure. He said the $5.8 million spent at Garrett went to improving security hardware such as fences and locks, upgrading electrical service and installing a sprinkler system. The changes were needed, he said, to avoid having to ship the most troubled youths out of state if the only other “hardware-secure” juvenile facility, Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, is at capacity.
The $5.8 million for the Garrett Children’s Center would have been one expense among thousands in the budget documents the governor’s office submitted to legislators, and individual line items are rarely debated in the final budgeting process. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan did not return messages seeking comment on the decision to spend the money upgrading the Garrett facility.
Spending millions upgrading a remote juvenile facility isn’t the best use of time or money, according to a state watchdog and some justice reform advocates who say the site, formerly known as the Savage Mountain Youth Center, should be closed for good.
“I don’t think it should reopen, unquestionably,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit focused on justice reform. He added that research shows the “incarceration of young people has very poor outcomes in terms of public safety [and youths’] future well-being.”
“There should be a burden on the state and decision-makers to show that those expenditures are justified,” he added.
As Maryland legislators appear poised to take up juvenile justice during the 2021 legislative session, which starts next month, experts in criminal justice have been debating what the system should look like.
And with two other juvenile detention facilities now permanently closed, some say the state is in a unique position to reform its system of juvenile detention.
“This is a moment in time that is historic and may never happen again,” said Egan.
A review of hundreds of pages of state reports and recommendations show Department of Juvenile Services staff, a state watchdog and other experts have long contended that Maryland unnecessarily locks up Black youths in remote detention facilities with little evidence the practice is more effective at reducing recidivism than keeping them in probation programs closer to home.
One of the biggest concerns, critics say and the state acknowledges, is that all the secure facilities are in the most remote areas of the state. According to DJS, five of the six state-operated youth detention facilities are in Frederick, Allegany and Garrett counties in Western Maryland, with the other in Kent County on the Eastern Shore.
Plucking kids, mostly Black, from cities and sending them far from home is bad for them and makes travel difficult for their families, an independent state agency said in a 2018 report. It also lowers their chances of succeeding and avoiding avoid adult prison.
“ [Y]outh fare better when they are closer to their families and their local communities. However, Maryland’s juvenile justice system continues to isolate young people and break family bonds by placing them far away from their home communities,” the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit wrote in its 2018 review. The unit is an independent office in the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
Abed, who has been DJS secretary since 2011, said at an Oct. 8 meeting of the Juvenile Justice Reform Council that a proposal by the Public Defender’s Office to start moving away from out-of-home residential programs is “a very good framework to use as a starting point.”
Maryland reported an average daily population of 396 youths in custody in fiscal year 2019, which includes those being held in private programs both in and out of state.
The state’s youth detainee population was more than 70% Black in fiscal 2019, and 22 of the 24 youths detained at the Garrett Children’s Center since it reopened in December 2018 have been Black, according to DJS records. The surrounding Allegany County is more than 86% white.
“The majority of the kids that end up being placed in those institutions … are kids of color and kids that come from impoverished families,” Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit director Nick Moroney, one of the authors of the 2018 report, told The Baltimore Sun. “[Better to] bolster the resources closer to where the kids live, and we’ve been saying that for years.”
But change that brings children back to their home areas concerns some in law enforcement. Opponents question whether the state should be sending troubled youth back to the cities where they strayed to begin with. In fiscal 2019, about 166 of 767 children in DJS custody were from Baltimore.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger challenged the locally based approach during the Oct. 8 legislative work group meeting, saying Maryland could create a system that limits state courts’ options when handling juvenile cases, especially those involving volatile situations at home. Part of Egan’s recommendation was to bar out-of-home placements for technical violations of probation so as to allow caseworkers more agency to handle youth offenders without court intervention.
Shellenberger asked Egan, the public defender, if it is wise to always have youth offenders close to home.
“I know you have to have had clients who are living in neighborhoods and homes that are absolutely horrible conditions and situations and you can see the path they’re going to be led on,” Shellenberger said. “Aren’t there times when getting them out of that environment might be better?”
Egan countered that addressing a child’s environment, if it is abusive or potentially dangerous, is more the purview of the Department of Social Services. ”The problem is that, right now, we use a system with cages, jails and detention sometimes to care for kids who have been abused and neglected,” Egan said.
The Juvenile Services Department, despite its approval of the work group’s recommendation, has argued that the state should not entirely stop using out-of-home detention centers, even if it’s in support of trying to move some of those centers closer to offenders’ homes.
“While community supervision and treatment is appropriate for the vast majority of youth in Maryland’s juvenile justice system, there are youth who require out-of-home treatment in secure settings,” agency officials wrote in a 2019 report.
As Maryland’s legislators are set to weigh potential legislation on the matter, other states can offer some insight about what a reformed system could look like as they’ve moved toward home-centric models in recent years.
In October 2016, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice contracted with two organizations “to develop a statewide continuum of evidence-based services and alternatives to placement in state operated juvenile correctional centers.” The state said its goal was “to make sure that each court and each community across [Virginia] has access to the right tools and supports.”
The state used funds saved through the closure of three juvenile facilities to support alternatives to detention, such as expanding family therapy services and substance abuse treatment options.
By fiscal year 2018, the state reported it had cut by more than half its average daily population in juvenile correctional centers in three years, down to 216 youths from 466 in fiscal year 2015.
A 2019 report by Virginia officials found that, despite moving away from detaining youth at state-operated facilities, the recidivism rate among juveniles in agency custody or supervision declined from 25.1% of youths in fiscal year 2014 to 21.2% in fiscal year 2018.
“Overall, the rearrest rates across the system indicate promising results of transformation thus far,” the department’s report says.
The nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation says the changes also have led to a 90% increase in family visits in 2018 compared with the prior year.
Sen. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the Juvenile Justice Reform Council, said she is confident changing to a locally centric approach will be among changes that come from the General Assembly session.
The senator likened the Juvenile Justice Reform Council to a similar panel focused on improving conditions in adult prisons and reducing incarceration numbers. That led to the Justice Reinvestment Act, legislation passed in 2016. She said that, considering the juvenile justice council has similar goals, the current recommendation is likely to carry weight in the coming session.
“I believe that will have a great influence over legislators,” Carter said. “Everything that we’re doing is actually long overdue, in my opinion.”