State officials approved plans Wednesday to build a $30 million, 60-bed jail to house Baltimore teenagers charged as adults, a step to address years of concern about the practice of housing young city defendants alongside adults.
The U.S. Justice Department has said the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center has been violating the law by keeping the youths in the same facility as grown-ups, where teens often are secluded and do not receive school or other services while incarcerated.
The contract to renovate an existing pretrial facility on North Forrest Street near the detention center represents a compromise to an earlier proposal to build a much bigger youth jail in the city.
The Board of Public Works unanimously approved the deal without discussion on Wednesday, a marked shift from the debates that consumed plans to build a $70 million youth jail twice as large two years ago.
Advocates say they hope plummeting populations of young offenders charged as adults and changes in state law will eventually render the $30 million project obsolete.
"It's definitely not we want," said Kara Aanenson, director of advocacy at Community Law In Action, a Baltimore nonprofit that works on juvenile justice issues. "We're really hopeful that will be able to change the law and we won't need to use it for this population."
Gov. Larry Hogan signed a law Tuesday that advocates say would funnel a lot more children charged as adults to juvenile justice facilities, which are generally smaller than jails and provide schooling and counseling.
Aanenson said she and other juvenile justice advocates plan to lobby the General Assembly next year to end the practice of automatically charging many youths accused of violent offenses as adults.
Eight years ago, the state agreed to federal oversight to improve the conditions in which young offenders were kept.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department criticized the Baltimore City Detention Center for continuing to house youths charged as adults alongside the general population.
The issue was a bigger problem before the rate of youths jailed as adults dropped in recent years. State officials said in March that the city detention center holds fewer than 20 minors on any given day. But federal investigators who reviewed the last year jail said those young offenders were sometimes kept in seclusion for a month or longer.
The vast majority of youths charged as adults in the city are today housed in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.
Legislative analysts, citing a report prepared for the Department of Juvenile Services, said that while the number of juveniles charged as adults has remained above 900 statewide since 2010, those who spent time in jail while awaiting trail has dropped by 39 percent from 2011 to 2014.
Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said that even though the number of youngsters who would use the facility has declined, "the department is committed to housing juveniles charged as adults in a new building that will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreation areas. It's a facility that's vastly superior to the current location."