A plea for moral imagination [Commentary]

The public outcry against the proposed construction of a $70-million juvenile jail in Baltimore City over the past several years — and the subsequent halting of that plan — sent a strong message to the governor, as well as juvenile services personnel statewide, that throwing money at the problem of juvenile crime just isn't going to cut it any more.

Study after study has shown that incarcerating youth is not only incredibly costly — running about $80,000 per child per year, according to one estimate — but is actually detrimental to the rehabilitation of delinquent youth. What's more, the overwhelming majority of youth who are locked up are not violent offenders: Just 12 percent of the almost 150,000 youth placed in residential programs by delinquency courts in 2007 were locked up for violent crimes, according to a 2012 study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Instead of putting delinquent youth in facilities that have been proven to exacerbate violent behavior, many researchers are now calling for a push toward evidence-based, family-centered and community-based interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy, functional family therapy and various types of social education programs.


Imagine a Baltimore where key figures such as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and state Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed made it their resolution in this new year to think more creatively about community peace-building initiatives, starting with a significant increase in funding for youth development programs. Such a resolution would be a proactive investment in the social capital of our city's youth, an untapped asset that would bring boundless returns.

This type of moral imagination is at the heart of Youth Unlocked, a campaign that is attempting to drastically reduce youth arrest rates in Baltimore. Founded by the Ingoma Foundation, in partnership with the Open Society Institute and the Baltimore Wake Up project (led by actress and community advocate Sonja Sohn, who played Kima Greggs on HBO's acclaimed television series The Wire),Youth Unlocked is focusing on the Oldtown neighborhood of East Baltimore in a three-year pilot project that seeks to get at the deeper, systemic issues that keep the youth in Baltimore's downtrodden areas from succeeding. Rather than attempting to find more jail space, they are focusing on promoting more positive police-youth engagement; rather than investing in tourism and big business, they're trying to fund small business opportunities and artisan-training projects.

I first became involved with Youth Unlocked almost two years ago while working with another youth-development organization run out of the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Over the span of my time with the group, I've met incredibly brave, exuberant kids from some of the roughest parts of the city; I've met caring, concerned police officers (such as Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, commander of the city's new Community Policing Division) who want to change the status quo; and I've met inspiring youth development advocates (such as Ras Tre Subira, Director of the African-centered youth development group AYA Baltimore) who are tired of accepting the unspoken divisions in this city.

According to Paulo Gregory Harris, Director of the Ingoma Foundation, Youth Unlocked's initial campaign organized nine youth leaders, who in turn recruited over 30 youth volunteers, to initiate an array of projects, including regular community cleanups, efforts to revive a basketball court, a community arts project and a youth forum as well as the collection of almost 130 surveys of Oldtown residents and business owners regarding their hopes for the neighborhood.

We need to insist that Baltimore's leaders support these efforts by taking up a new kind of politics: a politics rooted in integrity, with moral imagination as its driving force. There are examples we can draw from in our national political consciousness. To that end, I'd like to close with a quote from a hero of a mine, Sargent Shriver, a native son of Maryland who spent a portion of his youth in Baltimore, served as the first director of the Peace Corps under the Kennedy administration, and was a firm believer in the power of government to lift up the disenfranchised: "The politics of life is personal initiative, creativity, flair, dash, a little daring. The politics of death is calculation, prudence, measured gestures. The politics of life is experience, spontaneity, grace, directness. The politics of death is fear of youth. The politics of life is to trust the young to their own experiences."

Greg Couturier is a youth development advocate, Shriver Peaceworker Fellow and student at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. His email is

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