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Closing Baltimore's jail

The Baltimore City Detention Center needed to close. Any discussion of Gov. Larry Hogan's surprise announcement Thursday that he was shuttering the facility needs to start with that. Yes, he should have consulted with the mayor and key members of the legislature about his plans beforehand — or at least informed them. And no, he did not need to ridicule his predecessor, former Gov. Martin O'Malley, and the members of the legislature who studied the problems at the jail and recommended a 10-year replacement plan. He did not win Mr. Congeniality on Thursday. But more important is whether he made the right decision, and on a fundamental level, the answer to that is yes. The conditions at the jail are deplorable, and the state could not in good conscience subject detainees and guards to them for another decade.

Much of the discussion of the governor's announcement has focused on the gang scandal at the jail that has led to dozens of criminal convictions of detainees and guards on assorted corruption charges. But that's not the main reason it needed to close. The jail's antiquated structure — it dates to the Civil War era and has been added to in a haphazard manner various times since — made it more difficult to prevent contraband from entering the facility, but the state did take important steps in the wake of the scandal to improve procedures and tighten security, including a sophisticated system to block the cell phone calls that were crucial to the criminal enterprise.

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The bigger problem is the jail's structure puts detainees and guards at risk. The legislature's 2013 report on the jail, which the governor bragged about not having read, notes "failures in the plumbing, broken elevators, bug and rodent infestations, problems with air conditioning and mold as areas of concern. The design of the facilities creates poor lines of sight, which increases the potential for assaults. The existing barred cells and keyed doors are particular impediments to maintaining officer safety and reducing the flow of contraband through the facility." This spring, advocates found widespread problems with health care at the jail, which they linked to at least seven deaths since 2013. Poor sanitation — including moldy showers, broken plumbing and dirty mattresses — fostered the spread of disease. The only way to address those failings of the facility was to abandon it.

That said, it's far from clear that Mr. Hogan's plan for how to deal with the more than 1,000 people held at that detention center on an average day represents a good solution. Scattering the detainees to a variety of facilities throughout the city and surrounding area will present massive management and logistical hurdles for his administration. Getting defendants to court on time has long been a chronic problem in Baltimore; it's now going to be that much harder. The problem of poorly coordinated medical care that often leaves detainees without access to medications they need — from methadone to insulin — is only going to be harder to solve. The governor's promise that the 772 employees of BCDC will be transferred to other facilities is likely easier to make than to keep. And the idea that this will actually save the state money seems fanciful, given how frequently arrestees will have to be transported from Central Booking to a scattering of other facilities around the region.

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Many details of the governor's plans remain unknown, but we doubt he's hit upon a permanent solution. Kudos to Mr. Hogan for being willing to pull off the Band-Aid (much as Mr. O'Malley did when he closed the equally troubled House of Correction early in his first term). But now he needs to have conversations with all the affected stakeholders about what happens next. He should seriously explore bail reform to ensure we are only detaining before trial those criminal defendants who pose a risk to the community or who are likely to skip their court dates, and he needs to work with the courts to further efforts to revamp the city's case management system to reduce its chronic trial postponements. Those and other policy steps could substantially reduce the number of people being held before trial.

The governor's decision gives him and others the space to build the right facility for Baltimore's 21st Century needs. Otherwise, we doubt he can effectively and efficiently protect the health, safety and civil rights of detainees and guards in the long run. To think the jurisdiction with the busiest criminal docket in the state can get away without having the same kind of central detention facility every other jurisdiction has makes no sense at all.

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