Teens need programs, not jail cells

With plenty of evidence to refute the need to spend millions to build a jail for juveniles, it would not be far-fetched to expect Gov. Martin O'Malley to instead focus his attention — and our state's precious resources — on projects that prevent youth from engaging in crime.

Sadly, that would be a mistake.

Recently, Governor O'Malley decided to double-down on the misguided plan to spend more than $70 million building a youth detention facility in Baltimore that studies show is not needed and could ultimately end up being a colossal waste of taxpayer funds.

Using the governor's commissioned report researched and written by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, youth advocates have documented why the state's march toward building a youth jail is faulty. Among the report's findings are:

•Juvenile arrests have fallen during the past six years, and experts predict that this number will continue to decline.

•Alternatives to detention cost far less and produce better results. For example, "evening reporting centers" cost $44 per day compared to the exorbitant $462 a day for detention.

•The alternatives free up existing jail space, providing ample room for those youths who need to be detained.

•The costs to build and operate a youth jail would be better spent on expanding basic development activities, such as recreation, sports, arts and improvements to our schools.

Nationally, states are reexamining their treatment of youth offenders. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many states are choosing rehabilitation over the tough-on-crime attitude that came in vogue during a rise in juvenile crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"During the past decade, juvenile crime rates have declined, and state legislatures are rebalancing approaches to juvenile crime and delinquency in order to identify methods that produce better results for kids at lower costs," according to the study Trends in Juvenile Justice State Legislation 2001-2011 by the NCSL.

But here in Maryland, it seems like we are doing the exact opposite.

We have a juvenile justice system that is failing our children, and the answer is not to throw millions of dollars down the drain building a new jail. It is really disheartening that our governor would not listen to youth advocates who have studied this issue.

I know that there is a better approach, because here in Baltimore I have created a program that invests in our youth on the front end and offers them alternatives to engaging in juvenile delinquency.

My P.L.A.Y. (Productive Lives, Active Youth) campaign has provided many of Baltimore's youth with a wide range of opportunities to strengthen their self-confidence, develop leadership skills, learn from positive role models, and be rewarded for their academic achievements. P.L.A.Y. has encouraged them to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. And during the past two years I have created a number of public-private partnerships with the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards, Baltimore Orioles, D.C. United and local universities that have invested in young people.

Last summer, over the course of seven weeks, hundreds of youths participated in my Charm City Talent contest. Students under age 18 competed at local recreation centers as singers, rappers and instrumentalists and were judged by a panel of talent experts. A group of seven youngsters performed in front of family, friends and complete strangers for the chance to be crowned Baltimore's best talent.

These young people included then-12-year-old Immanuel "Mannie" Payne, who spent the lead up to the finale practicing daily for what he called his big chance, according to a July 2011 article in The Baltimore Sun. "Just being in the contest is a great achievement that I can look back on later in life," Mannie told The Sun.

Imagine the amount of positive programming and its impact on Baltimore's youth that a $70 million investment could achieve.

As we find ourselves at a crossroads concerning how best to support our youth, we should remember children like Mannie, who, without an investment on the front end, might ultimately cost us all more in lost talent and treasure on the back end.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young is president of the Baltimore City Council. His email is councilpresident@baltimorecity.gov.

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