In approving plans to build a new $30 million jail in Baltimore City for teenagers charged as adults, state officials may have settled on the least-bad alternative from an unattractive range of options. It's certainly better than the current practice of housing juveniles awaiting trial or assignment to a treatment program in facilities alongside adult offenders. But there is little in the plan that addresses the larger issue of the shortage of treatment slots available to troubled youth, and it skirts entirely the issue of whether juveniles should automatically be charged as adults for certain crimes regardless of their age.
The new facility will hold juvenile offenders whose alleged crimes are considered so serious they can't be confined with youth accused of lesser offenses but who at the same time can't be safely housed with adult criminals. Maryland has long struggled with this conundrum with mixed success, primarily because none of the available options really address the underlying problem, which is that the state lacks the capacity to provide timely treatment and counseling services for all the youngsters who need them. As a result, some youth end up having to wait weeks or sometimes months after their cases are adjudicated before a treatment slot opens up.
The state Board of Public Works voted unanimously last week to move ahead with a 60-bed juvenile facility in Baltimore that would be half the size — and cost — of the juvenile jail proposed by former Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2012. Child advocates had criticized that project not only because of its high price tag but because research showed the size of such facilities actually increases the risk of violence by making it harder for correctional staff to maintain control. The current plan is being touted as a more appropriate response in terms of both safety and practicality, given that the number of juvenile offenders jailed for serious crimes has been steadily declining in recent years. State officials reckon that the city detention center now holds fewer than 20 minors on any given day.
That said, Gov. Larry Hogan recently signed legislation that child advocates hope will further reduce that number by funneling more youngsters charged as adults into juvenile justice facilities, which are generally smaller than jails and are equipped with classroom spaces, instructors and equipment to allow children to continue their education. Youth who get into trouble with the law too often end up dropping out of school entirely after being incarcerated; having fallen behind their classmates during the time they were away they become so discouraged they believe they can never catch up. Yet they pay a heavy price for such decisions later in life when they find themselves unable to get a job without a high school diploma and feel forced back into a life of crime just to support themselves and their families.
Maryland could go even further by eliminating or at least reducing the number of crimes for which the law requires that youths be charged as adults. Currently Maryland has more such offenses on its books than almost any other state, despite the fact that most juveniles charged with serious crimes eventually have their charges dropped, are given probation or have their cases "waived down" to juvenile court. Given what modern science has learned about the workings of the teenage brain — its propensity for risk-taking, its impulsiveness and inability to foresee consequences — there's a case to be made that minors should never be charged as adults regardless of the type of crime they commit. In effect, biology has so impaired their judgment and decision-making that they might as well be considered non compos mentis — legally insane — as far as the courts are concerned.
Society hasn't quite come around to embracing that idea, however, so in the meantime there will always be a certain number of young people for whom confinement in a secure facility seems the only appropriate response. For such youngsters the proposed jail in Baltimore may be the best available alternative. But the state should be constantly working to minimize the number of youths held there and the length of their confinement. We shouldn't forget that no matter what they've done, most of them are still just impressionable (and often very frightened) teenagers who have strayed onto the wrong path. Simply locking them up and throwing away the key won't solve anything when what they need is a safe, therapeutic environment in which to begin the hard work of turning their lives around.