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Baltimore doesn't need a costly new juvenile detention facility

Regarding your editorial about the potential cost savings from reducing the size of Maryland's prison population ("Downsizing Md.'s prisons," Aug. 14), there is a simple, concrete step that the governor could take now to achieve that goal: Scrap plans to build a new jail in Baltimore City to house youths under the age of 18 who are charged as adults.

This facility alone is estimated to cost approximately $100 million to build and $8 million a year to operate.

While many advocates agree that holding youths charged as adults in the Baltimore City Detention Center is problematic, the construction and operation of a new pretrial facility is an ill-advised investment that will unjustifiably strain the state budget while offering little prospect for reducing the crime rate.

Moreover, as you noted in a previous editorial ("Downsizing juvenile jail," May 13), the National Council on Crime and Delinquency reported that the proposed facility is twice the size necessary given current population trends, and there are a variety of financially advantageous alternatives to the proposed facility that will keep city residents equally safe.

Maryland should follow the example of Virginia, which houses most youth charged as adults in existing juvenile detention centers where they have access to school, mental health services and behavior-modification programs while awaiting trial. This policy is supported by recent research, which shows that approximately 70 percent of the youth charged as adults in Baltimore ultimately have their cases dismissed or transferred to the juvenile court system.

Minimizing unnecessary and costly spending on incarceration involves closing facilities, not constructing new ones. Maryland has the opportunity to begin its reform now by halting plans to build a new youth jail.

Amy Walters, Baltimore

The writer is a staff attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center.

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