A broken juvenile justice system

Maryland public safety secretary Gary D. Maynard insists that complaints about how his agency deals with youthful offenders are overblown and that those that are valid could be solved by building a new $70 million juvenile jail downtown. But recent reports of violence and unsafe conditions at the adult facility where minors charged with serious crimes are currently held — and the fact that federal officials haven't visited the place in more than two years to certify that that Maryland is honoring its commitment to improve conditions there — suggest the problem goes deeper than that. Quite aside from whether a new juvenile detention center is needed, it's clear the system isn't doing enough to monitor and supervise the young people in its care and that the whole policy of charging minors as adults needs rethinking.

As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported recently, minors charged as adults at the Baltimore Detention Center say they are frequently targeted for beatings and intimidation by other youths and that staff do nothing to intervene or stop such incidents even when they witnesses them. Youngsters have also complained of being denied basic medical care and of being forced to live in unhealthy and unsanitary communal quarters for protracted periods and of having few opportunities to further their education even when they want to turn their lives around. Those are problems a new building wouldn't necessarily fix.

Since Maryland law prohibits housing minors in the same cell block as adult offenders, juveniles charged as adults at the Baltimore Detention Center are held on a separate tier of the facility. They live in dorm-like units that hold dozens of youngsters, an arrangement that replaced the previous two-person cells with a less restrictive environment designed to foster socialization among the minors awaiting trial. But the new set-up also made it harder for staff members to keep tabs on what was happening among groups of minors or to maintain control over the situation when fights broke out.

Advocates for youngsters at the facility have complained for months about what they describe as the dangerous conditions and poor treatment faced by their clients on the youth tier. But while Mr. Maynard acknowledges that conditions there are less than ideal, he dismisses most of the reports of violence as exaggerations and says the department has uncovered no evidence of serious abuses.

Still, something is obviously wrong when a minor held at the adult facility shows up in court sporting a black eye or broken teeth so prominent that even the judge can't fail to see it, as recently happened in Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard's courtroom. The sight moved Judge Heard to declare from the bench that no one deserved to suffer that way before granting the minor's request to be transferred to the city's youth detention center, where the emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

City prosecutors routinely oppose such transfers on the grounds that kids charged as adults shouldn't be mixed in with youngsters accused of less serious crimes. But given that 70 percent of minors charged as adults either aren't convicted in adult court or have their cases waived back to juvenile court, it's likely most of the youngsters held in the adult system should never have been there in the first place. That's why Maryland lawmakers need to rethink the whole policy of charging minors as adults.

State law requires suspects under the age of 18 to be charged as adults for any one of at least 28 crimes, including murder, attempted murder, armed robbery and first-degree assault, but also a number of lesser offenses. The reason most of these cases are never prosecuted in adult court is that the law still distinguishes adult and juvenile offenders' differing levels of maturity and ability to understand the consequences of their actions. No matter how tough on crime lawmakers want to appear by imposing ever more severe penalties on ever more crimes, in practice all but the most dangerous and incorrigible youthful offenders end up in juvenile court anyway.

At a time when juvenile crime and arrest rates have been declining, it simply makes no sense to lock up troubled youngsters in the same facilities as hardened adult criminals, and there are better ways to deter youths than purpose-built juvenile jails that merely grease their way into the adult prison system. At a minimum, the recent complaints about conditions at the Baltimore Detention Center demand greater oversight. But even more, they ought to be a wake-up call for rethinking the goals of the juvenile justice system rather than an excuse for relying on another juvenile jail to solve the problem by itself.

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