Let's make the new youth detention center unnecessary

A tour of the new Youth Detention Center in Baltimore. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

Opening a new, $30 million youth detention center in Baltimore is certainly no reason to celebrate. No question, the new facility is a big improvement in terms of the educational, psychological and other services that will be offered to alleged juvenile offenders while they wait for trial, and placing them in a dedicated building, away from adult offenders, was necessary to secure their safety and civil rights. But the youth advocates who wish we could have spent that money on programs to keep youth out of trouble rather than on a building to confine them are absolutely right. When a young person winds up behind bars waiting for trial in adult court, that's a reflection of failure by adults, not the child.

The long and winding saga that led us to the construction of a new youth detention center on Greenmount Avenue began as an attempt to address a pressing injustice for juveniles accused of serious crimes. Previously, they had been housed in the Baltimore City Detention Center — a facility that was unfit and unsafe for adults, much less children. As a result of the unsuitability of the facility, the difficulty in keeping youth and adults separate and the different focus of the adult correctional system compared to the juvenile one, children were routinely subject to inhumane periods of solitary confinement in the old jail. In 2015, the Department of Justice reported violations of federal law in the treatment of youth there, including some who were held in isolation for months at a time. Such treatment of adults would be tantamount to torture; inflicting those conditions on the still developing minds of teens is a recipe for disaster. Insufficient supervision and overcrowded conditions led to frequent fights among the youth. Something had to be done.


But former Gov. Martin O'Malley's initial proposal for a $100 million facility capable of holding hundreds answered the wrong question. As a state, we didn't need to figure out how better to warehouse large numbers of young people waiting for trial in adult courts, we needed to figure out how to make sure we have fewer of them. And that is the real (if still incomplete) success story here. In 2011, when advocates first gained traction in the fight to stop a mega-facility, they pointed to report concluding that given population and crime trends, such a detention center would likely only need to hold 30 or 40 youth at a time. But since then, the number of youth awaiting trial as adults has plummeted further. Last fiscal year, the average daily population of such juveniles was just nine. Even the new, drastically scaled down facility — which has beds for 50 boys and 10 girls — is likely too big.

That didn't happen by accident. The Department of Juvenile Services, under Secretary Sam Abed, who was originally appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley and has continued under Gov. Larry Hogan, has worked to reconfigure its facilities and programs to provide safe alternatives for housing juveniles accused of serious crimes. It has also successfully reduced the number of juveniles in custody in general to provide more space for those awaiting trial.

That enabled officials from the relevant state and local agencies to create a process through which youth facing charges in adult court in Baltimore could be housed in juvenile facilities while they petition to have their cases transferred to juvenile court. In 2015, the General Assembly passed, and Governor Hogan signed, a law formalizing that policy and expanding it state-wide. Now such transfers to juvenile facilities are the default unless the youth is given pre-trial release, no appropriate juvenile justice facility has capacity to hold him or her, or "the court finds that detention in a secure juvenile facility would pose a risk of harm to the child or others, and states the reasons for the finding on the record."

Of note: The new youth detention center is run by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, not DJS, so the law still requires judges to send minors waiting for trial elsewhere if possible. Just because the new facility is a major improvement over holding youths in the city jail complex doesn't mean it is the most appropriate place for most of them. Advocates will need to be diligent to make sure the courts don't backslide on that point.

There are more steps we can and should take. Maryland has an unusually large number of crimes for which accused juveniles start out in adult court. That list needs to be pared down, if not eliminated. There may be cases when juveniles are so irredeemable, and their crimes so heinous, that adult courts and adult corrections facilities are the only appropriate recourse. But the burden should be on the prosecutor to make that case in juvenile court.

Finally, Governor Hogan and the legislature last year embarked on a bi-partisan effort to reduce Maryland's prison population and to reinvest the savings in prevention programs. A substantial portion of that money needs to be directed to interventions for at-risk youth. Ultimately, the best answer to the question of what we do with youth accused of serious crimes is to make sure they don't get in trouble in the first place.

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