Commuters driving into Baltimore from the south today were understandably chagrined to find themselves stuck in unusually heavy traffic that extended from the beltway all the way into downtown. The cause? A demonstration led by the Rev. Jamal Bryant that blocked the city's major arteries in protest over state decisions to fund a new $30 million jail in Baltimore City for juveniles charged as adults but not to allocate $68 million set aside by the General Assembly for public schools throughout the state.
The demonstrators certainly had a right to express their views. But they hurt their own cause by failing to appreciate the reality involved. While the notion of robbing from schools to build a jail sounds good on a protest sign, it bears no relation to the way the state budget works.
The protesters today claimed they wanted to draw attention to Gov. Larry Hogan's misplaced priorities in using state funds to build a youth jail while denying additional funds to local school districts. But the jail will be funded through the state's capital budget, which relies on the proceeds from bond sales to support construction projects and other one-time expenditures. The school funding comes from the state operating budget, which pays for ongoing expenses like state employee salaries. Mr. Hogan is no more spending the school money on the jail (as protesters claim) than he is funneling it into the pension system (as he claims).
The protesters say they wanted to shock people out of their complacency, but the issues of state funding for the jail and Mr. Hogan's decision not to spend the $68 million on schools have already attracted plenty of attention. Tying up traffic to call attention to problems people across the community and officials at all levels of government already recognize as urgent is counterproductive if it only makes the protesters seem more interested in attracting the attention of the media than in effecting change. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was right to criticize the protesters for blocking roads in a way that could have prevented hospital and other emergency workers from getting to their jobs or patients from getting treatment.
No one is claiming the planned juvenile jail is ideal. But that's hardly because the public has been indifferent to the issue. On the contrary, the current plan was approved by state officials only after years of public debate involving community activists and child advocates, whose efforts resulted in a facility only half as large and half as costly as the project originally envisioned.
Moreover, the new facility was intended to address an even worse problem: That of housing juveniles alongside adult offenders in the Baltimore City Detention Center, which is not only a bad idea but illegal. Youths housed at the adult jail are often kept in solitary confinement much of the time for their own protection, which only exacerbates the problems they already have when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. And in the adult jail there's no provision for them to receive schooling or the counseling and mental health services they would receive at a youth detention center to help them turn their lives around.
The optics of spending millions on a youth jail have proved a potent rallying cry, but there's a less sexy policy issue at hand that deserves the same attention. Maryland has more crimes on the books for which juveniles are automatically charged as adults than almost any other state. Youth charged with those crimes can petition to be transferred to juvenile court, but the fact that they start in the adult system has a powerful influence on the course of their cases.
The awakening of civic activism in Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray's death has given the people and leaders like Reverend Bryant a tremendous opportunity to capture the attention of the public and elected officials. They need to use that power more wisely than they did this morning.