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Don't build a new youth jail in Baltimore

A recent report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency demonstrates clearly that the state's plan for a $100 million jail to house Baltimore City youths charged as adults is way out of line. But the answer is not necessarily a smaller jail, either. The NCCD details five scenarios that, when implemented, could eliminate the need for a new jail at all — an outcome that is not only financially advantageous to our city but a moral imperative.

Today's juvenile justice system remains true to its origins. In a report titled "Adoration of the Question: Reflections on the Failure to Reduce Racial & Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System," the Burns Institute reminds us that "From the earliest days of our nation, segregationist policies dictated that the detention of youth of color would be different than that of white youth coming into contact with the penal system for the same categories of offense." Today, 99 percent of Baltimore youths held in locked detention facilities are African-Americans. This must lead us to question not only the building of a new jail, but the purpose of those that currently exist.

The NCCD report presents five scenarios that counter the state's projection of the need for detaining youth charged as adults and resist the perpetuation of incarcerating our black youth. The first two scenarios detail ways to detain youth in juvenile facilities under current law: 1) a waiver, or permission, from a judge, to move jurisdiction or control of the youth to the juvenile system and 2) commitment of the youth to detention in a juvenile facility even as the adult system maintains jurisdiction over his or her case. In both scenarios, there is no need for additional jail beds for youths charged as adults — the exclusive use of the proposed new jail.

Other scenarios address the length of stay in detention prior to determination of the cases' outcome and both reduce the need for bed spaces by shortening the time a youth is detained, pending trial. Scenario 3 would impose a mandatory 30-day hearing period (reducing stays from 88 days to 30); and Scenario 4 calls for processing bail release hearings within two days (reduces detention stay from 19 to two days).

The fifth scenario reduces the need for bed spaces and also challenges the unequal treatment of black and white youths by offering youths held in the juvenile system the chance to avoid detention or out-of-home placement, which current practices already enable for white young people. Instead of being detained, eligible youth are offered counseling, remedial education and an internship, producing success rates far above their counterparts in detention. The NCCD states that the reductions in bed-space needs in their five scenarios "could be achieved while maintaining public safety, reducing costs, and improving outcomes for arrested youth."

So let's do it.

The state says the proposed $104 million jail is at least 50 percent larger than needed, freeing up at least $31 million in approved capital funds and about $5 million in approved annual operating funds, which can be immediately redirected to implement the fifth scenario. The NCCD reports: "Community-based alternatives to both detention and out-of-home placement are particularly appropriate for youth since their connections to home, community, school and other local relationships [are] so important to their development."

Investing in positive community alternatives produces success by nurturing the healthy development of our youths, rather than waiting until they fail before spending resources on their behalf. The average daily population of Baltimore City youth in detention is 250 at a cost of $464 per youth per day, or an annual bill to the state of $42 million. If the daily population was cut in half through the methods suggested in the report, the state could use the $21 million savings to fund 21,000 summer jobs or 4,200 Little League teams, or to keep open all the city swimming pools every day of the summer or offer art and dance at every public school. The uses are endless, and so too would be the accomplishments of our youth and the quality of life in Baltimore, if we invest in opportunities.

The state already has the infrastructure to grow effective alternatives. Under the O'Malley administration, the use of evidence based practices such as multi-systemic therapy has been expanded. An Opportunity Compact (the Ready by 21 Jobs Initiative) has transformed an abandoned hardware store on Greenmount Avenue into a state-of-the-art training center where youth receive on-the-job training and multisystemic therapy counseling and earn their high school diploma or equivalent — all at a fraction of the cost ($20,000) and lower rearrest rate (15 percent) than their only alternative, an out-of-home placement at $86,000 per youth per year and a 75 percent rearrest rate.

The NCCD report affirms what we already know: that better outcomes for less cost can be achieved for young people whose lives have been shortchanged by the false and racially biased expectations that they will fail. The governor and state legislators simply need to agree to do it.

Hathaway Ferebee is executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign. Her email is

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